Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Things I Learned This Summer

Poison ivy is very bad.

It hurts quite a lot. There are blisters. Do everything you can to avoid getting it. Expect to look as though you've been in a knife fight for weeks.

There is a direct correlation between the number of times your various loved ones end up in the hospital and the number and height of weeds in your yard.

Can we all just think about the flowers and the vegetables, just this once?

If you don't plant cucumbers, you get no cucumbers.

This should be obvious, and yet somehow I was surprised.

One day at the beach is not enough.

Again, file under "Obvious."

If you completely neglect the garden all summer, you will still end up with potatoes.

(Assuming you planted them, which we did.)

The Sudafed they sell on the shelf is nothing compared to the old-school version you have to sign for at the pharmacy counter.

It's worth getting put on the meth-cookers' watch list if you have bad respiratory issues and are trying to avoid bronchitis like me.

There's always next summer.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Alas, my toof and my garden

Since the last time I wrote, it's been nothing but rain, rain, rain or unbearable heat here in the DC metropolitan area. Neither of these conditions inspires me to get outside and do something about the legions of weeds that have overrun my vegetable garden and flower beds. Thus, every day I pass them by, but not without painfully observing what a wreck they have become.

Still, I now have an even better excuse to continue my neglect: oral surgery. About a month ago, I found myself in the dental chair, bracing myself for another root canal. Only this time, the endodontist got halfway through the procedure and discovered that this particular molar (tooth #30 for anyone who actually finds that meaningful) was doomed: cracked at the root, its chances of survival were slim to none.

That's how I ended up at the surgeon last Friday, getting poor ol' #30 extracted (i.e., drilled out of my head) and some bone graft put in and then stitched up to heal 3-4 months before dental implant surgery. Meanwhile, for two weeks I have been instructed to eat only soft foods, not chew on the right side, and refrain from strenuous activity. OH WELL, WEEDING!

I should reassure anyone facing this kind of surgery that, really, it's not that bad, and I say that as someone who cannot tolerate narcotics and cannot be sedated and so must be conscious for the entire procedure. Just make sure they shoot you up with anesthetic and you'll have nothing to fear. Also, the endodontist taught me to wiggle my toes while she drilled; it gives you something to concentrate on other than the "SQUEEEEEEEEE" of the drill. Better yet, get to work on inventing a drill that doesn't make that noise: there's a fortune to made there, not to mention the benefit to humankind.

Anyway, I'm currently taking it easy, watching the yard go to pot, and entertaining myself with the thought that the gap in my teeth is bringing me one step closer to fulfilling my goal of becoming an Old Mountain Woman (first two steps were cornbread and canning). Now, where do I get myself a corn cob pipe?

I bet she makes a mean cobbler.
One step closer.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Lawn Ornaments

(or "One Gardener's Art is Another Gardener's Display of Unspeakably Bad or Misguided Taste")

As with all things in the garden, I firmly believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that whatever objects you choose to decorate your own little piece of land need please no one but yourself. So whether you have a concrete deer, a tiny Deere tractor replica, an entire extended family of gnomes, or a wooden cutout of a lady bending over, HUZZAH to you, I say! I'd be lying if I said I was a fan of any of those particular items, but I will defend to the death (figuratively, you understand; don't anybody come here ready to throw down the gauntlet) your right to decorate your yard as you choose.

After all, who am I to judge? While my preferred lawn ornament is almost always rocks, I do have a limited number of garden ornaments, and they probably won't pass The Good Taste Test. Still, we enjoy them, which means they're fulfilling their lawn ornament-y destiny.

My first ornament was Sneezy the pink flamingo, beloved house-warming gift from my honorary nephew when I bought my first home. Oh sure, the flamingos are hipster-cliche these days, you'll say. But Sneezy is different. Sneezy is special. Sneezy has propellers.

Yes he sure does! You can't see them in the picture below, alas, but that's Sneezy in the foreground, peeping around the boxwood. He's shy these days because the post he used to stand on rusted off. Thus Sneezy is forced to sit upon the ground, his propeller wings no longer free to spin in the breeze and spread his classy aura about the yard.

Behind Sneezy you'll notice two more flamingos of the more traditional variety: these are Sleezy and Carl, Sneezy's half brothers. Sleezy and Carl were orphans rescued from my neighborhood's curbside, where their heartless parents left them to fend for themselves. Thank goodness I was there to save them!

The flams tend to move around the front yard quite a bit, but they are always there, lurking.
From front to back: Bunny Crossing sign I gave Mom years ago,
Sneezy, Sleezy, and Carl.

It's not all pink plastic at the Little Blue House, though. On our first wedding anniversary, Mulch Boy and I got each other rocks. More accurately, we got each other things fashioned out of rock, and the gift I received was this birdbath made of rough-carved stone. I love the rough, rustic look of it, and how it blends right into the landscape of the backyard. 
Stone bird bath, plus beagle.

For his gift, Mulch Boy picked this shiny blue-green turtle, made of carved and polished granite. In Mulch's family, it's tradition to have a turtle in your yard, and this is ours. His name is Oliver Grendel Holmes, and he tends to move around the backyard when he gets restless and bored.
So I says to Mabel, I says...
Oliver Grendel Jones, left, and Charlie.

Back in the front, our most recent addition guards The Big Bed and the stone circle. She is Margaret T. Rex, a copper sculpture of a tyrannosaurus that we fell in love with at an antique/garden shop out in the Virginia countryside. Margaret is that perfect combination of decorative and terrifying we're all looking for in our gardens.
Oh, Margaret!
Margaret T. Rex, left, guards The Stone Circle and terrorizes innocent sheep. Also,
flamingos can be seen in the background.

It occurs to that our tasteful lawn ornaments are all in our backyard, while our "questionable" ones live out front for the neighborhood to admire. I expect that says something about us; I'm just not entirely sure what.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Howdy, Ranters!

I didn't anticipate that my guest rant on Garden Rant would mean an exponential increase in visits to my blog--wow! I'm pretty excited to know there are so many new eyeballs checking the Potato Queen. I hope at least some of you will like what you see and decide to stick around. It's nice to know there are folks out there with like minds regarding the garden.

If you want to see just what kind of gardener I am, you can literally start at the beginning here, and follow our progress from lowly amateurs making it up as we go along to...  well, lowly amateurs with a little more experience still making it up as we go along.

But who are we? The Potato Queen was born in the DC area and has lived most of her life here in Northern Virginia, with some intervening years in West Virginia (where all her fambly is from) and Ohio (go Bucks!). Mulch Boy was a lifetime resident of Massachusetts who was tricked into flying to DC for a party where he was secretly set up to meet the Potato Queen (also secretly set up). The rest, as they say, is history: a year and a half later, Mulch was transplanted to Northern Virginia, the next year the Queen and Mulch got married up and moved into the Little Blue House, and thus began their joint adventures in gardening and life. And dogs.

As far as garden philosophy? I'm always trying to learn more, and I'm really proud of what I have learned and accomplished since I started gardening. I admire the friends and bloggers I know who can rattle off the Latin names of everything growing in their yard, whereas I'm not even sure of the common names of most of my plants. I'm constantly amazed by those who seem to know just how to combine their perennials and bulbs for beautiful four-season displays. I'm in awe of those whose yards boast different gardens for specific conditions--rain garden here, rock garden there. Shoot, I'm impressed with anyone who has the discipline to plant their flowers the recommended distance from each other (no matter how often I've been proved wrong, there's part of me that never is convinced those little seedlings will ever grow big enough to fill that space in between).

In a nutshell, our garden "design" is based on impulse rather than planning. This used to bother me in my earlier gardening days. I've since accepted and embraced the reality that my garden--like myself--is disorganized, a little chaotic, and a bit (ha!) weedy. Yet it has its own beauty, and it gives generously of its fruits (and vegetables) and scents and flowers. And as long as it pleases us, I deem it a success.

Again, welcome!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

How does my garden grow?

No doubt some of you have wondered whether Potato Queen and Mulch Boy was morphing into the Cornbread and Canning channel and abandoning its gardening origins. The answer, in a word, is NO.

But I did say early this year that I was broadening the scope of the blog beyond just the garden, so no doubt there will be more cornbread and canning. Frankly, I'm thinking every post should be about cornbread, as my cornbread post got more attention and love than anything I'd ever written about before.

Still, there's only so much cornbread one can bake or eat or wax philosophical about. So today, it's back to the garden and an update on what's going on there--in pictures!

Stoopid Airstream!
Big Bed by the street, and our old friend Stoopid Airstream.

Pretty lillies
Asiatic lilies. These guys came with the house and originally were lined up against the
backyard shed in the shade. They're happier here in the Big Bed. Also, the climbing
hydrangea in the back (also came with the house) has grown exponentially.

I love that little barberry.
My pretty little barberry (I think) at right, plus rocks and lilies, and coneflowers
getting ready to bloom.

Thanks, JElly!
Oak-leaf hydrangea: a gift from beloved friends JElly. After six years
(and the removal of the dumb maple tree, it's finally thriving!

Someday I'll replace the top on that birdbath.
Little view of the Big Bed and crape myrtle. close to the Little Blue House.

Blueberry bush purchased this year at Greensprings, covered in blueberries!

And they are delicious!
My old blueberry bush, with more blueberries!

Hands off, birds.
The blackberries, also from Greensprings this year, are coloring up.

The vegetable garden, going strong! Clockwise from top left, peas (still), taters galore,
volunteer taters galore, parsnips, carrots, beets, sweet bell and hot peppers, basil,
and four different tomatoes.

I don't care what Madonna says, I love hydrangeas.
Hydrangea in the back yard. This one is sometimes pink, sometimes
blue. This year, apparently it's pink.

Please don't die in our yard, little baby birds!
These guys, however, are always blue (although they are pretending
to be pink in this photo; how odd). Also, birds build nests in the
birdhouse every year.

Benign neglect succeeds again.
St. John's Wort, also conveyed with the house. Someone told me you're supposed to cut
this back every year, but six years in ours has thrived without a single trim.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Canning for Stoopidheads

As I mentioned previously, I've always wanted to can, but have always harbored a secret fear of it. All the jar-boiling and processing became terribly intimidating in my head and scared me away from attempting it. Finally, this past Thursday I overcame my fears and gave it a shot.

Thanks to a pile of books and a host of resources open on my Internet browser, I managed to can two cars of jam successfully, albeit not without some hairy scary moments involving hot water and glass jars. But now that I'm no longer a canning virgin, I have new-found confidence. Plus I learned a lot from all my various resources, and now I'm going to record them here so I can refer to them easily whenever I can (and there will be more times).

If you've ever contemplated canning, I hope this comes in handy for you, too. It turns out that canning is not as scary and mysterious as you might think,

Four Steps

Based on my one experience, I plan to approach my next canning adventure via these four steps:
  1. Preparing the ingredients for the stuff.
  2. Preparing the canning tools and sterilizing the jars and lids.
  3. Making stuff to go in the jars (in my case, delicious jam).
  4. Processing the stuff in the jars.

There are timing issues involved, which was one of my anxiety points, but in retrospect those timing issues are not difficult to handle. So, the steps.

Step 1: Prepping Ingredients for the Stuff

It may be your recipe is easy-peasy to throw together. OR you might need to pit a million billion cherries. Especially in the latter case, it is a good idea to gather your ingredients and prep them (pit them, chop them, measure them) so that they are ready to go when you are ready to make your stuff.

Step 2: The Canning Prep

A. Gather all your handly tools and wash them.

  • Jar tongs. These will make it possible to manuever your jars in and out of hot water with safety and ease.
  • Jar lifter. This little wand with a magnet on the end allows you to lift and move the jar lids in and out of hot water and onto your jars without touching them and possibly contaminating the finished product.
  • Canning funnel. Lets you fill your jars without spilling stuff on the hot jars and most importantly on the rims, which could interfere with sealing.
  • Ladle. Any old ladle, for filling up your jars.
  • Rack or other something to rest jars on when you can. Resting the jars on the bottom of the pot you use to can exposes the jars to direct heat from the stove and increases the chances of EXPLOSIONS! However, you don't have to buy a special canning rack; any rack (like a cake cooling rack) that fits your pot will do. I've also read of folks using dishtowels folded over several times, or silverware, or (in the case of someone's grandma) little pieces of kindling.

B. Sterilize your jars.

This is where I started getting shaky, what with the hot boiling water and glass. It's not that bad.
  1. Wash all your jars and lids and bands in hot soapy water.
  2. Dry bands and set aside; they do not require sterilization.
  3. Get a pot large enough to hold all the jars you want to sterilize. This does NOT have to be a canner; you can use the same pot later to process your jars of stuff.
  4. Put your rack or rack substitute in the pot.
  5. Put your jars in the pot on top of the rack or rack substitute, then completely fill and cover with water.
  6. Bring pot to a boil on the stove. When the water reaches a rolling boil, THEN start the timer for 15 minutes and let the jars boil. (My recipe said 10 minutes, but I'll err on the side of caution.)
  7. After the time is up, turn off the heat. If your stuff isn't ready to go in the jars yet, leave the jars in the hot water to stay hot. (You need your jars to be hot when you put hot stuff into them or you risk the jars 'sploding,) The jars can be held for up to an hour in the hot water; beyond that, they must be resterilized.
  8. The lids... I'm getting conflicting information. My instructions (which I followed) had you boil them for 10 minutes and hold in hot water. I've seen others that said not to boil them. I'll stick with boiling them for now.
  9. Have a clean dishcloth spread on the counter; when you remove the jars, put them here, right side up.
  10. When you are ready to use a jar, use the amazing jar tongs to carefully lift it from the hot water, empty, and put on the clean dishcloth.

Step 3: Make the Stuff

Now you have your prep work done, and you can can as soon as you have made some stuff. In fact, once you get the jars in the hot water, you could go ahead and start making your stuff. Be sure to think about how long it will take your jars to boil and how long it will take to make your stuff, remembering that the jars can rest in the hot water for up to an hour if everything (as is likely) isn't ready at exactly the same time.

Important things to note in your recipe:
  • Required processing time.
  • Required headspace in jar. Headspace is the mimimun amount of space you should leave at the top of the jar when you put your stuff in it. The purpose of headspace is to leave extra room for your stuff to expand during processing. Thus, it's okay to leave a little more headspace, but not less. Notice I said "little": you don't want to double the headspace or have half a jar full; that's inviting bacteria growth, according to the Interwebs.

Step 4: Can the Stuff

You've got stuff and you've got hot jars. Time to can!
  1. Put canning funnel in canning jar.
  2. Ladle your stuff into the funnel and fill the jar.
  3. Ensure the jar is filled to leave the proper minimum headspace (for my jam, 1/4 inch).
  4. Using your nifty lid lifter, transfer a hot lid from the hot water onto the top of the filled jar.
  5. Put a band onto the jar and screw on, but not too tight--"finger-tight" was a term I read that I found useful. (I left the magnetic lid lifter on the jar lid until I'd screwed on the band.)
  6. Use the jar tongs to carefully lower the filled jars into the already hot water bath on top of the rack or rack substitute, turn up the heat, and put the lid on the canner.
  7. When the water reaches the boiling point, let the jars boil (process) for the amount of time specified in your recipe.
  8. When the time is up, turn off the heat, carefully remove the jars using the jar tongs, and set them back on the clean dishcloth to cool for 24 hours.
  9. Did you hear any "pops"? That the sound of your jars sealing--yay! You can check by pressing your finger on top of the lid: if it can be pressed down and then pops back up, the jar has not sealed. You should probably just eat all the jam in that jar right now. Or you could put in the fridge and share it with your family for the next few weeks. But whatever you do, don't put it on the shelf with the sealed jars or it will spoil. Yuck!