Let’s Get this Garden Started!

Let’s get this garden started!

Last summer, I decided to take the summer off from gardening. After the whole pandemic thing, I thought I needed a break from my backyard garden. By July, I knew I was wrong. No matter how much work it is, I love gardening in summer. It relaxes me. It gives me more purpose. It’s important. Last August, I wrote about how much I missed it. You can see that here.

So this year, I have already gotten started. Before my daughter and I left for her senior spring break trip last week, I got 72 seeds started in a Burpee Seed Starting Greenhouse Kit (order your Burpee kit from Amazon here), and last night and today, I have started 144 more. While I was in Jamaica (with 60 kids and their parents, yikes!), I didn’t even think about the seeds I had started till the third night of my four night trip. As trashy as it sounds, I had left the grow kit in the window of our dining room, so it would get lots of light. I called my husband on that third night and asked him to walk in there and see if anything was happening, and he sent me a picture of lots of emerging seedlings! Once I see that kind of progress, I get excited and want to start more seeds, so I have been busy since we got home.

Being in North Carolina makes gardening a little tricky. It’s hard to tell when winter is officially over. It might be 80 degrees for two weeks, and then we will get snow the first week of April…trust me, it has happened. So I’m never really sure about when to transfer my seedlings to the ground. I try to wait as long as possible for the last cold snap and for the plants to get a little bigger, because I learned a long time ago that birds, rabbits, and deer love seedlings. I think I will likely do the transplant thing in two weeks and put all kinds of things around the garden to deter the pests. It looks crazy out there when I get all my flash tape, pinwheels, and fake owls out, but they do seem to help deter the “pests” a little. I can’t sit outside like Elmer Fudd with a gun hunting “wabbits” all night.

Seriously, I’m feeling better already just because I know I’m going to have a garden. I never realized how much it bolsters my mood till I didn’t garden last year. This year I will have tomatoes (tomato sandwiches, anyone?), three varieties of cucumbers (salad, anyone?), two varieties of corn, and lots and lots of different varieties of sunflowers, including the beautiful Mexican Sunflowers…a big, bushy plant full of tiny orange blooms!

Maybe now is when I should tell you that my “garden” means my whole backyard. There’s not a whole lot of rhyme or reason to my “garden.” I just plant where I can, and sometimes, it drives my husband crazy. Our next-door neighbor seems to enjoy it…she helps me with it when I’m out of town, and I share the cucumbers and tomatoes with her. Plus, she loves bees and butterflies as much as I do, and one of the great things about all those flowers and cucumber blossoms is that they attract both.

Having a garden makes me go outside every morning and every evening to tend things. I like to water everything by hand twice a day. I know, I could set up the irrigation system, but there’s something special about watering by hand…and by hand, I mean with the hose. Occasionally, I mix plant food in a watering can, but most of the time, I water things with the hose. If I’m not watering the plants, I’m pruning the plants or harvesting. And I’m always on the lookout for pests like tomato grubs or cucumber worms/beetles. A tomato grub will make short order of an entire tomato plant in no time!

I’m a self-taught gardener, which means I have learned along the way, and I’m still learning! For example, a few years ago, I planted my corn plants too far apart, so I had to learn how to pollinate them by hand! Later, I realized one corn plant had corn smut, a fungus that is considered a blight here in the US but is a culinary delicacy in Mexico! So you know what I did…I learned how to make tacos with it. In Mexico, they call it huitlacoche (pronounced weetluhkochay), and cooked right, it is delicious. I also learned that braconid wasps lay eggs in the backs of tomato grubs, so if you see a tomato grub with white, spiny-looking things (the wasp eggs) sticking out of a tomato grub’s back, leave it alone. It will die from a toxic substance in the eggs, and the eggs will hatch new wasps that will keep the cycle going! Growing flowers close to tomato plants helps attract the wasps in the first place.

Do I know everything about gardening? No way! I know very little compared to most, but I enjoy learning to new things, so it’s fun. Hopefully, I will learn even more this spring and summer!

Let’s get this garden started!

Lemon Cucumbers? Yes, Please!

Lemon cucumbers? Yes, please!

Back in the spring, when we were first “sheltering in place” because of the COVID pandemic, I decided to order the seeds for my summer garden online. As soon as I searched a couple of different sites, I realized I was not the only person with that idea. With the pandemic, lots of people decided to grow their own food this year, so I had to pick from what was available…and the “pickings were slim.”

I ordered my usual varieties of sunflowers and added a few new varieties I had never grown before…more about those later. And for veggies, I wanted to order squash, zucchini, and other things I like, but because they were all sold out, I ordered a few regular green cucumbers…some “slicers” and some “garden sweet hybrids.” I ordered some corn to plant (which was terribly unsuccessful)…and watermelon seeds. And then I saw something I’d never seen before…seeds for growing Lemon Cucumbers, or as Ferry-Morse labeled them, Cucumber Lemons. In reality, they are cucumbers, so I prefer to call them Lemon Cucumbers. According to Health Benefits Times, it is also known as a Yellow Cucumber, an Apple Cucumber, or a Crystal Apple, but I prefer Lemon Cucumber. It’s part of the gourd family, and despite the lovely yellow color of the skin, it is not a lemon in any way. These unusual cucumbers are round and bright yellow, and they are slightly sweeter than a traditional cucumber…with a slightly earthy flavor. It also has health benefits…offering Vitamin C, potassium, and fiber…and they look really summery in a cucumber salad. You can see more of the health benefit and recipes here.

So way back in March, I seeded lots of flowers and vegetables, starting them in the pool house, but eventually bringing them into my very own dining room, where I had a little more space and could get to them more easily. When I felt it was warm enough outside, I transferred all my seedlings, and I was absolutely shocked at how many of them actually made it this year! Usually, I have about a 50% yield on transplanted seedlings, but this year, it was closer to 85% or even 90%! You might have read my piece titled Welcome to the Jungle earlier this year…and now you know why my backyard looks like a jungle.

The plants were prospering, it seemed, but the vegetables were late to fruit. But at the beginning of July, things started picking up. The green cucumbers started fruiting like crazy, and I noticed small yellow cucumbers on my Lemon Cucumber vines. The plants have become quite prolific, and I was able to slice my first Lemon Cucumber earlier this month…after watching a YouTube video about when to harvest them.

As it turns out, they are as tasty as I had hoped! I’ve shared some with my next-door neighbor, a friend across town, and a friend who lives in Alabama. She sent some tomatoes, eggplants, okra, and peas from her garden, and sadly, all I had to offer in return was a few Lemon Cucumbers, but hopefully, she will enjoy them as much as I have. There is no way she will enjoy them as much as I’ve enjoyed what she sent me, but maybe I can make it up to her next year, because I plan to grow them again! So far, they’re growing like crazy cakes, and I love to grow anything that produces like these things do!

I’ve been making lemon cucumber sandwiches and cucumber salad. I’ve been putting lemon cucumbers in my water and in my salads. Does anything taste more like summer than fresh cucumbers? I’m hoping my plants will continue to produce for another month or so, because I’d love to keep enjoying these delicious yellow cucumbers as long as possible. For cucumber salad recipes, click here.

If you’re intrigued and want to plant them next year, I’m guessing you’ll be successful, because I do not have a green thumb. If I can grow them so well, I think anyone probably can! In the meantime, I’m sharing lemon cucumbers with anyone who asks! And when I share a lemon cucumber, I feel like I’m sharing some joy…because gardening has brought me great joy this summer, and the lemon cucumbers are a surprise, tasty treat.

Would You Eat This?

I have had a great time trying my hand at gardening for the past two summers. My husband helps me get everything started, and then, I tend the garden and harvest everything. This year, we have some beautiful sunflowers (three different types!), some zinnias, some delicious tomatoes, two varieties of sweet corn, and huitlacoche (also known as corn smut, a fungus on corn ears). While I’m proud of the flowers, tomatoes, and corn, I am just as excited about the huitlacoche (pronounced wheetlacochay).

For those who don’t know, in the US, huitlacoche, or corn smut, is considered a blight on a corn crop. It’s ugly…no doubt about it. And it certainly doesn’t look like something you should eat. The first time I saw it, in fact, I felt a little sick just from looking at it. But for centuries in Mexico, dating back to the Aztec culture, they have eaten it. Basically, it is a fungus that invades the corn plant, and as a result, the corn kernels grow into bulbous galls, which contain the spores of the fungus. It renders the corn useless, but if you know how to cook huitlacoche, it can be a delicious mistake in your garden!

Last year, I found a little on one ear, but this year, I found a lot on two ears, so I harvested it Monday, and yesterday, I cooked it. After finding it, I texted a friend from Mexico, who sent me several recipes for a few different ways to cook huitlacoche, and I opted to make tacos using a combination of some recipes…using onions, garlic, chilies, corn and cheese. You can learn more about huitlacoche here.

I know what you’re thinking. Is huitlacoche safe to eat? Trust me when I say I did a lot of reading before I cooked it. I talked extensively with a friend from Mexico, who assured me I would not die from eating the corn truffles, as they are sometimes called.

For research, a friend went to lunch with me at a Charlotte restaurant called Bakersfield. See its website here. It’s located on the corner of East Boulevard and Kenilworth…right across from Berry Brook Farms. I wanted to see what it was supposed to look like and find out how it is supposed to taste before trying to cook it. After having a Huitlacoche Taco at Bakersfield, I was completely sold! I could hardly wait to make my own at home!

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Bakersfield’s Huitlacoche Taco

Many of my friends couldn’t believe I would cook it…and they really couldn’t believe I would eat it! They saw the “before” pictures of the corn smut and decided they would not be eating it. But I cooked it with some chilies, corn, garlic onions, a little oil, and some cheese, and I ate it!Huitlacoche tastes a little like smokey corn…like a mushroom and corn mixed, and cooked with the other ingredients in the recipe, the flavor is amazing. So I was excited to cook it myself! While I’m sure there are some who would not like it, I found it delicious…and I was so proud of myself for not only harvesting it, but also cooking something really good with it. That being said, the rest of my family would not eat it, but they aren’t very adventurous eaters anyway. I’m not sure they believed me when I told them it was safe. Maybe they thought they shouldn’t eat it in case I needed to go to the hospital. But their worries proved unfounded.

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Huitlacoche Taco at my home! Success!

And frankly, they missed out on a culinary adventure. I’m sure my friends from Mexico would know my version of huitlacoche tacos wasn’t perfect, but they’re impressed I tried. And I’ve impressed myself this time! My friend, Cesar, who grew up in Mexico City, said, “You’re the only American woman I know who can grow it!” Of course, it was purely accidental that I became a huitlacoche farmer, but I’m so glad I did!

If you would like to try huitlacoche but don’t want to do any corn farming, you can get huitlacoche tacos at Bakersfield.

Or maybe next year I will harvest my own huitlacoche again, and you can come over and help me cook them!

 

 

Eat Corn Fungus? You Bet!

I have had a great time trying my hand at gardening for the past two summers. My husband helps me get everything started, and then, I tend the garden and harvest everything. This year, we have some beautiful sunflowers (three different types!), some zinnias, some delicious tomatoes, two varieties of sweet corn, and huitlacoche (also known as corn smut, a fungus on corn ears). While I’m proud of the flowers, tomatoes, and corn, I am just as excited about the huitlacoche (pronounced wheetlacochay).

For those who don’t know, in the US, huitlacoche, or corn smut, is considered a blight on a corn crop. It’s ugly…no doubt about it. And it certainly doesn’t look like something you should eat. The first time I saw it, in fact, I felt a little sick just from looking at it. But for centuries in Mexico, dating back to the Aztec culture, they have eaten it. Basically, it is a fungus that invades the corn plant, and as a result, the corn kernels grow into bulbous galls, which contain the spores of the fungus. It renders the corn useless, but if you know how to cook huitlacoche, it can be a delicious mistake in your garden!

Last year, I found a little on one ear, but this year, I found a lot on two ears, so I harvested it Monday, and yesterday, I cooked it. After finding it, I texted a friend from Mexico, who sent me several recipes for a few different ways to cook huitlacoche, and I opted to make tacos using a combination of some recipes…using onions, garlic, chilies, corn and cheese. You can learn more about huitlacoche here.

I know what you’re thinking. Is huitlacoche safe to eat? Trust me when I say I did a lot of reading before I cooked it. I talked extensively with a friend from Mexico, who assured me I would not die from eating the corn truffles, as they are sometimes called.

For research, a friend went to lunch with me at a Charlotte restaurant called Bakersfield. See its website here. It’s located on the corner of East Boulevard and Kenilworth…right across from Berry Brook Farms. I wanted to see what it was supposed to look like and find out how it is supposed to taste before trying to cook it. After having a Huitlacoche Taco at Bakersfield, I was completely sold! I could hardly wait to make my own at home!

img_9869.jpg

Bakersfield’s Huitlacoche Taco

Many of my friends couldn’t believe I would cook it…and they really couldn’t believe I would eat it! They saw the “before” pictures of the corn smut and decided they would not be eating it. But I cooked it with some chilies, corn, garlic onions, a little oil, and some cheese, and I ate it!Huitlacoche tastes a little like smokey corn…like a mushroom and corn mixed, and cooked with the other ingredients in the recipe, the flavor is amazing. So I was excited to cook it myself! While I’m sure there are some who would not like it, I found it delicious…and I was so proud of myself for not only harvesting it, but also cooking something really good with it. That being said, the rest of my family would not eat it, but they aren’t very adventurous eaters anyway. I’m not sure they believed me when I told them it was safe. Maybe they thought they shouldn’t eat it in case I needed to go to the hospital. But their worries proved unfounded.

img_9996

Huitlacoche Taco at my home! Success!

And frankly, they missed out on a culinary adventure. I’m sure my friends from Mexico would know my version of huitlacoche tacos wasn’t perfect, but they’re impressed I tried. And I’ve impressed myself this time! My friend, Cesar, who grew up in Mexico City, said, “You’re the only American woman I know who can grow it!” Of course, it was purely accidental that I became a huitlacoche farmer, but I’m so glad I did!

If you would like to try huitlacoche but don’t want to do any corn farming, you can get huitlacoche tacos at Bakersfield.

Or maybe next year I will harvest my own huitlacoche again, and you can come over and help me cook them!

 

 

Gardening…again

Last year, I tried my hand at a very small garden and had lots of success, so this year, I’ve decided to do it again. Before, I had tomatoes, sweet corn, and sunflowers, so I’m going to see if lightning will strike twice. As I said last year, I’m no gardener. I have no idea what I’m doing. But dang it…it’s fun!

We are planting corn this year on the side of the house, and it will be visible (a little) from the street once it gets tall. I’m not sure how much grain growing is allowed in the neighborhood, but I guess we will find out! I will let everyone know if we receive some sort of written notice. My husband is lucky, because I really wanted to plant it out front. I think corn stalks are beautiful, but he put his foot down on that. I learned last year that I had planted my corn plants too far apart, so I had to pollinate them by hand. We still had corn to eat, but it was a chore making sure they were all pollinated. Therefore, this year, I’m planting them in clusters, so they can pollinate each other. Nature’s way is best, so planting them closer together is the way to go. I learned from the past. I was actually surprised the corn grew last year, and I was doubly surprised when it actually produced ears of corn!

The tomato plants are going into the ground near where they were last year, because our knockout roses are in the same area. I believe our tomatoes survived last year, simply because of the knockout roses. The roses attracted braconid wasps, which in turn, killed the tomato grubs that tried to invade the garden. I had no idea about that when we planted the tomatoes, but I noticed a tomato grub with little eggs all over his back and looked it up. They were the eggs of the wasp, and they killed the tomato grubs. Thank you, braconids! Therefore, we are going to put our tomatoes near some roses again.

If you’ve never had a garden of any type, you might find it therapeutic. Last summer, when I woke up every day, I would walk outside and water our garden. And sometimes, I would water them in the evening too. We had tomatoes galore! But it was also a way for me to relax. Sure, I can sit by the pool during the summer and relax. And I can spend time with friends and family, but there was something about the quiet solitude of tending the plants that was good for my psyche. My mother had died the December before, and I truly believe gardening helped me with that. My parents both loved tomatoes and sunflowers. I knew they would have been pleased with what I was doing. Nobody loved a tomato sandwich more than my daddy, and I was able to enjoy them all summer long last year. Store-bought tomatoes just don’t cut it, so I grew my own! We hope to have the same this year…good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise!

So today, instead of doing all the things I should be doing, I will be doing what I want to do. I will have my hands in the dirt. OK, mostly it will be a trowel in the dirt. But I will have it in the dirt, transferring my seedling plants from the little clear cups into the ground. I discovered last year that birds and moles ate most of the seeds I planted, so I had more luck when I transplanted seedlings for corn and sunflowers. Tomato plants will go into the ground near the roses, and we will see if lightning strikes twice.

I’ve had terrible laryngitis for the better part of the week, so having something quiet to do will be perfect for me today. I haven’t felt much like doing anything, but today, it is on!

 

 

 

 

Wishing Summer Would Last?

Tonight I walked into my local Bath and Body Works for the first time in a while. My daughter was obsessed with this store for a few years. She loved their hand sanitizers, shower gels, and fragrance mists. Eventually, I started to like the fragrance mists as well, because I am not a big fan of perfume or cologne. When you have migraines, strong smells are not your friend. I ran out of my favorite fragrance mist today, so I ran to Bath and Body Works after I dropped off my daughter at a party.

When I walked into the store, a very pleasant saleslady greeted me, and as I stopped to take a whiff of a Pumpkin/Waffle scented candle, she asked, “Are you ready for fall?” What? Just sniffing a pumpkin/waffle candle makes me ready for fall? Of course I’m not ready for fall! I don’t even want school to start!

Instead, I just said, “Not just yet. I wish summer could last a little longer.”

The fragrance I usually use is Vanilla Bean scented, but after that exchange about fall, I was looking for something more summery, and boy, did I ever find it! I actually found a fragrance mist called At The Beach! Could it be more perfect? I picked up the sample bottle and sprayed some on my arm. Ahhhh….the scent of suntan lotion and sea mist! I picked up a bottle, and then I picked up another. Then I picked up some At The Beach Body Cream. Even though summer has to end, it doesn’t mean I have to stop smelling like summer! I’m walking around smelling like the beach! If you’d like to smell like the beach or purchase candles that smell like the beach, you can go to Bath and Body Works by clicking here.

Of course, I picked up some of my favorite Vanilla Bean fragrance as well, but I will put off using that for as long as I can.

In the past, I’ve extended summer for myself by using tanning oil or suntan lotion as moisturizers. If you’ve ever walked into a meeting I was attending and thought you smelled Hawaiian Tropic tanning oil, you probably did. I’ve been known to moisturize my skin with it. Nothing takes me back to high school like the aroma of Hawaiian Tropic. Or sometimes, I will use Coppertone Tanning Lotion, which immediately takes me back to my childhood and makes me think of the old ad…you know, the one in which the puppy is tugging on the little girl’s swimsuit. I actually had a beach towel with that ad on it when I was younger. You can purchase the oil and lotion in Target, Walmart, or most any drugstore.

This next summer-extending product is not something that smells like the beach, but it does taste a little like sunshine: Chick-Fil-A’s White Peach Tea Lemonade. What says summer more than lemonade? White Peach Tea Lemonade…that’s what. I happened upon this recently when I zipped through the drive thru of a Chick-Fil-A. I was waiting in the line and saw an ad on the menu board for this special tea, so I decided to try it. Normally, I don’t drink my calories, but I drank them that afternoon, and it was worth it. It has been added to the menu permanently after being tested in various markets. I know in November when I need to think of summer, I’ll turn into my neighborhood Chick-Fil-A.

Chick-Fil-A-White-Peach-Tea-Lemonade

Even after school starts, I’ll be dragging summer out a little longer in other ways too. I’m growing corn and tomatoes in my backyard, and right now, it’s looking like the corn will be ready to harvest around Labor Day. Maybe I’ll be able to talk my husband into grilling some hamburgers to go with our fresh, homegrown, sweet corn. And we’ll put some of the tomato slices on our burgers. My first tomato harvest wasn’t so good earlier this summer, so I’m hoping these late ones will be better. My sunflowers are just about to bloom, so they’ll be pretty for a few more weeks too. It could all make for a lovely Labor Day, which happens to be my mother’s birthday…our first without her. She would be proud.

Labor Day weekend also marks the beginning of college football season, so that’s something to look forward to.

I plan to smell like summer while drinking my iced tea till at least November. Maybe then I’ll light a pumpkin/waffle candle, but I will still be dreaming of summer while I sip my White Peach Tea Lemonade.