Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Countdown to Gardening: Commence Germination!

Countdown to Gardening: Commence Germination!

It's April, Spring is in the air, plants are starting to bud, temperatures are getting warmer, and for most of us gardeners, that means it's time to start up the garden again! I decided, after returning to a job at my local nursery and learning much more about plants, to really take 2016's growing season seriously. I am going to take you on my 2016 garden journey from planning to harvest!
Of course, this does mean some catching up is in order. For those of you who do not know, those of us who garden or farm ease the pain of post-holiday sadness by celebrating a little event of our own: the release of the seed catalogs! This is the second year I ordered seed catalogs, and I didn't go quite as crazy as last year, only ordering a couple. This is also the second year that I'm starting seeds inside. Currently, I'm trying a lot of pepper seeds. Here's what I have germinating:

Chocolate Bhut Jolokia (Ghost Pepper)

Peach Bhut Jolokia (Ghost Pepper)


Fatalii, an African relative to the Habanero

Hatch Green Chile

Shishito (A Japanese pepper that is like a mini green chile)


Trinidad Moruga Scorpion (What was once the hottest pepper, since pushed back to second place by the Carolina Reaper.)

It's a little late to start seeds, but I thought either 1) I can just transplant small plants into my garden, or 2) extend their season a little bit. I bought a pack of Walls-O-Water for this. I will review them in the coming weeks.

I'm also trying Pineapple tomato seeds, Brandywine tomato seeds, and milkweed for butterflies. Because I hate wasting seeds,  I decided to take my Armenian cucumber and watermelon seeds leftover from last year, start them inside, and see how they work out. So far the seedlings are off to a good start:

My Brandywine seeds could be doing better. I'm not exactly sure what hit them. I sprayed some neem oil on them and transplanted a few into peat pots. We'll see what they do over the next week or so. I planted some peas, kale, spinach, and arugula outside as winter plants to grow before the freezing temperatures end at the end of the month (in my zone, the risk of frost ends at about the end of April).

My side garden, which I originally started two years ago to experiment with different cool-weather plants, is no longer blocked by trees. This is bad news because it will no longer serve as a shade garden, but also great news because I can plant a lot more sun-loving plants this year! In addition, I've been keeping up a compost pile over the past several months, throwing pretty much anything I could find that's compostable into it. I'm excited to see what it does for the gardens. Because there is not enough of it to actually cover both of them, however, I will have to buy some compost. I prefer Back-to-Earth Cotton Burr Blend. It gets the job done! I have yet to decide exactly how much of it I will buy, but I'm planning quite a few bags.

So, that's what I'm currently up to with my garden. I'm hoping this will be my biggest and best garden yet! Stay tuned for next post as I talk more about compost and soil menders!

Stay Fresh and Down-to-Earth,


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Homemade Pumpkin Pie

    It seems that these days, farm-to-table, free range, organic, homegrown, local, heirloom, “take back our food” food is everywhere. Every single grocery store seems to sell organic and local products these days. For the past couple of years, I have caught on to this awesome trend and been growing a small garden, searching for the most heirloom, organic, free-range, vegan “take back our world” plants possible. One of these particular plants I grow is heirloom pumpkins--the Jarrahdale variety to be exact. They are a very unusual pumpkin, with a blue-grey outer color, perfect decorations for Halloween if you ask me. They are relatively easy to grow (not that I am an expert in pumpkin cultivation by any means), and quite frankly, I like impressing my friends and family with them. Forget about fancy-colored heirloom tomatoes! I grow fancy-colored heirloom pumpkins!!

    Unfortunately, I don’t quite know what to do with the pumpkins I yield every year. I have always wanted to carve a jack o’ lantern with a Jarrahdale pumpkin, given the neat color it is. The issue is that the flesh is much thicker than the average pumpkin--the pumpkin itself isn’t that hollow like most pumpkins we know and love. I will try carving one next year, hopefully keeping all my fingers intact!

    That said, it was the day before this past Thanksgiving in which I got a wild idea. I had a bunch of these pumpkins sitting around, about to rot. Why don’t I become Martha Stewart or Ina Garten and create my own, homemade, farm-to-table, organic, made-from-scratch pumpkin pie??

    I am not going to lie, this was a great idea. There was, however, one small problem. I had never made a pie before in my life, let alone a pumpkin pie, let alone one I made from pumpkins that I grew myself. I think an even bigger problem was that this problem didn’t even bother to cross my mind. If this seems contradicting, don’t you worry! You’ll find out just how much of a problem this really was pretty soon here. I posted the idea on Facebook, and with the confirmation and undying support of 24 of my Facebook friends and my mother, decided to find a recipe, run out to the store, and get this pie made faster than you can say “100% heirloom, organic, farm-to-table, made-with-love food!”

    First, some quick notes about these pumpkins and how I came to growing them. As I mentioned before, they are an heirloom variety, named for the town of Jarrahdale outside of Perth, Australia. This is, at least according to my research. (If someone has more info on their origin, please let me know.) My aunt received a bunch of unused seeds from a local co-op organic farm near where we live, and gave them to me when I began my garden. These included a packet of Jarrahdale seeds. The seed packets were relatively high-end, and most were certified organic by the USDA. I grew a few pumpkins, saved those seeds, and then grew some pumpkins this past summer with those seeds I saved. So, in short, the pumpkins cost me absolutely no money (perhaps labor), and my aunt and I are doing our part to build community.  How neat is that??

       These are a few Jarrahdales:


    So, I had quite a number of these pumpkins, recently picked, sitting around. My mom, who does a lot of photography, took some pictures of these, and at least one of her friends asked her what they take like. So, with Thanksgiving in the foreground, I decided to contribute to our meal by making a pumpkin pie out of a few of these pumpkins. I looked on the internet for pumpkin pie recipes, and found one that looked very good. You can find this recipe with this link:

    Much to my luck, the author notes that Jarrahdale pumpkins are a good pie pumpkin to use. I decided to run out to the store and get the ingredients, specifically the spices. I went ahead and decided to make a old-timey pumpkin pie, so I bought ground mace, since the author notes you can find mace in very old pumpkin pie recipes.

    My local grocery store was naturally very busy, filled with people searching for those last essential ingredients for their big meal. I was, however, able to find all the spices necessary. Keeping your recipes old-fashioned seems very expensive, because I was shocked at the price of mace. I am going to have to find a lot of recipes that use it! It was pretty neat because a young girl, no more than about 10 years old, was also looking for spices with her mom to make a pumpkin pie! I helped them out by looking for--you guessed it--ground mace. The irony of the situation is that the girl was carrying a fairly new cookbook in her arms. I guess mace is still popular in some pumpkin pie recipes! 

So, once I returned, I gathered all my ingredients:

    I used evaporated milk, eggs, allspice, ground cloves, mace, cinnamon, sugar, vanilla extract, and ground ginger. My family had a previously mediocre experience with homemade pumpkin pies, with the flavor coming up unfortunately short of the canned version, so I incorporated all the spices called for in order to compensate and hopefully avoid the dreaded discussion of “I like the canned version better.” I had forgotten since harvesting seeds from last year’s pumpkins just how thick Jarrahdales are. These are not the “Jack O'Lantern” pumpkins we’re used to and therefore take a lot more force to cut open because they are not as hollow inside. There are several different methods of softening the pumpkin flesh. I roasted the pumpkins as opposed to steaming them, but this method takes the longest and therefore added to the whole prep time. If you are interested in making a pumpkin pie, take this into consideration as the overall preparation is quite laborious and takes time. Any bit of time you save really helps.

    In addition to making the pumpkin pie filling, I decided to make my own dough for the crust. If you noticed a jar of coconut oil in the first picture, I used half butter and half coconut oil as the fat as was suggested. It worked out and made a nice crust, but was difficult to melt and incorporate into the rest of the dough. That, however, didn’t really make much of a difference in the end product. It took me several attempts to roll out a nice pie crust, and when I did, I was too scared to try and make a fancy design, so I just cleaned up the edges a little, which worked out fine. I’m guessing the art of making pie edges is one that takes much practice and patience anyway, something not reserved for a novice like me who decided to bake a pie on a whim!

    After about 90 minutes in the oven, the pumpkin was fully roasted and ready to be pureed. The skin (or rind) was very loose as well, so it took a lot of work to separate the pumpkin flesh from it without getting little bits mixed it. I began using a blender to puree the pumpkin, but the pumpkin was too dense and thick for it, and somehow started to leak from the bottom of the blender. I pulled out my food processor and pureed the rest of the pumpkin with little trouble. After the pumpkin was all pureed, I poured it into a large mixing bowl and added the spices. Now came time for the evaporated milk. I’ll admit that the only cans I had ever opened were those newer cans with pop tabs similar to a soda can. In other words, I had never bothered to use a can opener before, and let’s just say opening a can of evaporated milk with a can opener isn’t the best idea. Lesson learned: find a church key next time!

    I was pretty exhausted from cleaning up all the evaporated milk, but once that was over, I added a different can and all the spices to the pureed pumpkin. The article/recipe was right; the mix was VERY watery, surprising me and my mom as well. I ended up having to place the pie crust on the oven rack, carry the mix over, and finally proceed to pour the mix in the crust. A little scary, but once I got the mix in the crust, everything was okay.

    By the time the pie was baking in the oven, several hours had already passed since I started the whole process. I will not lie, I was extremely excited for the pie to be finished It took about an hour and a half to bake the pie. I was pleasantly surprised when I took the pie out to cool.

The final product: