Adventures in ketchup

Summer 2012 was a tomato year for the garden. Hot and dry, hot and steamy, hot and drenching rain, and hot again for another week – and we have oodles of tomatoes. All the varieties I planted did well: cherry, plum, modern and vintage beefsteaks. The only heartbreak will be all the fruit still green on the vine as we approach the inevitable frosty nights of October.

green tomatoesMaking ketchup requires a lot of tomatoes and a long cooking time. I had bushels of tomatoes ready to go but I don’t like keeping steaming pots brewing on the stove for long periods of time. Our small house heats up easily, especially when the weather turns hot and humid, so I decided to haul out my big cast iron pots and cook a batch over a wood fire in the yard.

I suggest using the Blue Book recipe for ketchup. I started with two gallons of thick tomato puree and doubled the recommended amount of spices. In the two cheesecloth bags below are whole spices including: coriander, celery seed, cloves, stick cinnamon, yellow and black mustard, bay leaf and dried Chipotle peppers from the Fruit Basket in Grand Junction, CO. (These peppers are incredibly fragrant – thanks, CherieBeyond! You’re also my proof that we’re not actually stuck on this island because you made it to Colorado – and back.) The recipe also includes good cider vinegar, brown sugar, salt and anything else you feel like throwing in to make it distinctly your own. Why yes, I did add a cup of bourbon, funny you should ask.

spice bagsThis was my first experience using cast iron over a wood fire and wow, that’s a lot of energy. I loaded a gallon of puree, the additional recipe ingredients, and the spice bags into the pots and the mixture came to a rolling boil almost immediately. I could have started with a lot less fuel and ended up adding much less wood to keep it going than I thought I’d need. It took a little over two hours (stirring occasionally) for enough water to steam off and leave a nice, thick batch of ketchup with a distinctive smoky taste. This is how I’ll make my end of season tomato sauces from now on.

pots over the fire


2012 garden winners

Autumn is here. I can tell because I’m spending more time stacking firewood than picking tomatoes. It’s time to cull the seed order for 2013 by picking winners to repeat, and losers (not many of those, really) to drop. Descriptions are from the Fedco Seed catalog, online 2012 version.

Winners include: Minutina

minutina Minutina (50 days) Open-pollinated. Also called Buckshorn Plantain. “Good in a buttered frying pan with fresh snipped chives and a fresh duck egg cracked on top,” informs Jan Sonstrom. Morse Pitts of Windfall Farm brought this spiky green to our attention. As it comes up it looks like little blades of grass. As it matures, it resembles mizuna leaves, only much narrower, less leafy and more succulent. Crunchy with a mild nutty flavor. Slow grower, will regenerate from cutting, but we recommend succession planting. Extremely cold hardy

I love this green – it provides texture, flavor and a lovely bright green accent to salads and stir fry and grew beautifully all summer through drought and torrential rain. I found it energetic enough to “cut and come again” with no problem.

Aromato Basil

aromatoAromato Basil OG Dramatic bicolor ornamental. Broad bushes of mottled purple and green grow to 2-1/2′, providing a focal point. Starts purple and takes on a greener coloration. Pleasing anisey flavor and scent intensify when it is dried. Makes a great herbal vinegar. AGRIOR-certified.

I don’t normally dry basil, preferring to freeze small containers of pesto to retrieve as a fabulous quick dinner on dark February days, but Aromato has convinced me to dry at least part of the harvest. This basil has such a spicy floral scent that I’m tempted to use it in the closets as a sachet. Oh, and it also makes wonderful dark and mysterious pesto.

Dakota black popcornDakota Black Popcorn OG (100 days) Open-pollinated. Outstanding in our observation plots two years in a row. Compact plants with one ear each. Our tasters rated the popcorn “Oh, so scrumptious.” In addition to their popping qualities, Dakota Black’s 4-1/2″ dark maroon-black ears with 15 rows are extremely decorative, a must for the fall roadside stand. 4′ stalks. ICS-certified.

The ears are still drying on the stalks so I can’t tell you how it tastes. It’s so beautiful that I don’t even care if we never pop any.

Blue Gold

Blue Gold or Peter Wilcox This goldie was our best seller at the Portland Farmer’s market, and an easy one to wholesale, too. The twin sister to Red Gold, and practically an early-season potato. Trialing it last year, we had great germination, a high yield, and delicious hash browns. You could dig it later too, as it stores durably. Sets tubers in a wide hill.
Wonderful taste, great texture, easy to dig and perfect skins – my new favorite potato. Harsh drought and high heat with no watering does not seem to have impacted the yield.
Dakota Black Popcorn OG (100 days) Open-pollinated. Outstanding in our observation plots two years in a row. Compact plants with one ear each. Our tasters rated the popcorn “Oh, so scrumptious.” In addition to their popping qualities, Dakota Black’s 4-1/2″ dark maroon-black ears with 15 rows are extremely decorative, a must for the fall roadside stand. 4′ stalks. ICS-certified.


I dug a hole in the lower garden this weekend, and this is what I got.

Load 16 tons, and what do you get. . .

We moved here twenty years ago and started gardening as soon as we could fell some trees, but we have neighbors who have been at it almost twice as long. When I asked R.A.T. (who has beautiful gardens and fruit trees with C., his wife) what kind of soil I could expect to find on my lot he thought for a minute and said, “Sparky”. I had no idea what he meant but later that summer when I boot-heeled a spading fork into a future raised bed and nearly started a forest fire scraping the metal against the granite,  I got it. We don’t have dirt here, we have flint and tinder.

Yeah, good luck getting this one out.

I’ve hauled a lot of seaweed in the last twenty years – pickup truck loads of the stuff, first loose in the back of the truck and later packed into recycled contractor bags as I realized what the salt and sand did to my truck. Also leaves, sand, gravel, horse manure, bales and bales of hay, piles of pine needles, composted bio-soils, wood chips and lately, other people’s yard waste and branches as I’ve adapted to the practices of permaculture. I can actually grow things now but that doesn’t mean there’s any fewer rocks, large or small.

Extra large family size over compensating rock.

Rocks can occasionally be a positive element in the garden, especially in poor soil. I was weeding the strawberries during this last gasp of summer-in-November and found the plants had spread furiously under and around the rocks holding down the landscape fabric meant to suppress weeds. I stood there for a while and considered the situation. The strawberry plants loved those rocks, perhaps because they conserved moisture and regulated temperature changes? The landscape fabric certainly wasn’t doing anything to suppress weeds, and I have a lot of rocks. Why not make the plants happy? The strawberry bed went from this:

Argghhhh, mass strawberry attack.

to this:

Order out of chaos. Sweet, sweet order.

If nothing else, it will be easier to step into the middle of the bed to pick the fruit, and it can’t be any worse at weed suppression than the landscape fabric. Prettier too, and I find that counts for a lot in the garden.

Still green

Today I worked on the perennial/alpine/small stuff garden on the north side of the house. This section of our yard is over the septic field, so I chose non-edibles with small, uncomplicated root systems for that location. I flunked the “root” test by planting a ground sand cherry here almost a decade ago and by the time I got wise to its evil, septic-tank-clogging ways the trunk caliper was 4″ and its root system was immense. Digging it out was a nightmare.

After that I thought I was being very conservative with my plant choices for this garden: daylilies, heaths and heathers, varieties of sedum and geraniums, candytuft and anise hyssop.  Today while cutting stalks and mulching for the winter I noticed that the Sweet Cecily (Myrrhis odorata) had spread to a dozen new plants – it’s easy to see this time of year because it’s still green and ferny after the frost.  I dug some out to transplant and surprise! A very impressive root system.

Cecily, or Sweet Cecily, is a member of the family Apiaceae and the only species of the genus Myrrhis. There is a North American relative, but my plant is the variety native to Central Europe. The leaves stay green and fresh almost all year round and the whole plant is highly fragrant of annis. The unripe seeds can be offered as an after-dinner mint, the dried leaves make an excellent mothproofing sachet, the root – along with dill and caraway, is used to flavor akvavit. It would probably make a nicely flavored vodka, too, if it wasn’t growing over the septic tank.

I’ve transplanted six “daughter” plants around the yard, and next year I may try flavoring vodka for Christmas lunch, when the Swedes say the herb “helps the lutefisk swim down to the stomach”. Skål!





Last Friday I picked apples at an abandoned homestead on my commute home from work.

The tree is big by Maine standards, about 40′ tall and 20′ around. Deer have pruned the branches back to 5′ above the ground by eating all the fruit they can reach. I used my walking stick to knock down enough to fill a canvas tote – about 15 lbs. of hard red, conical apples with minimal insect damage and no fungus. I haven’t looked up the variety yet, but the combination of large tree with that shape fruit hanging on a  tree past first frost is fairly uncommon and I should be able to find it in my loaner copy of “Apples of Maine”. Thanks, Agnes!

We don’t eat much jelly and jam, and space is scarce in the chest freezer downstairs. When the grapes came in (and in, and in some more) I made quarts of thick, sweet grape juice concentrate and we used that up very quickly indeed. I’d never made apple juice but honestly, how hard could it be?

You can see where this is going, right? I followed the directions in the Blue Book; cutting the stem and blossom ends off the fruit and then coarsely chopping the rest. I added a pint of water and a little lemon juice and cooked the apples down to “mushy”. Then the recipe says to drain the mush through a jelly bag or several layers of cheesecloth and after an hour I had about half a cup of juice. Very nice juice, but half a cup seemed unrewarding. Compared to the huge amount of apples in the strainer, ti also seemed stingy. I added more water, switched to a colander instead of cheesecloth, and generally made everything in the kitchen sticky sweet with apple residue and got 4 quarts of very thin applesauce for my trouble. Again, very tasty (those are good apples) and a pretty color, but not what I had in mind.

I think the next painting I sell will turn into a steam juicer.



October gardening

The late October to-do list includes:

Rake neighbor’s driveway: for the dual purpose of making her steep slope less slippery and harvesting wheelbarrows full of mulch for the blueberries, hydrangea, and current bushes. Every year I’m amazed what a soft, abundant cushion falls from the white pines that still look fully clothed in green needles.

Move the chrysanthemums from the yard to the hoop house and then eventually down cellar under the grow lights. Mums are one of my favorite plants to draw – their structure is so loud and on display – but they are the last flowers to bloom in my garden. That means nursing them through waning day length and falling temperatures, but it’s worth it for the source material. I indulge myself every year and buy two or three varieties from King’s Mums in Oregon, in search of my very own Mondrian.

Plant red garlic in the beds by the house where tomatoes grew this summer. A virus blew up the coast with Hurricane Irene and shut the tomato production down in August, so I should give these beds a rest from anything in the nightshade family for three years. I loosened the soil a bit with a hoe and planted a pound of cloves about 6″ on center all over the beds, while admiring the creepy-crawlies (baby pill bugs – very cute) and weeding out the tiny tomato seedlings (not this year, sorry). This spring I’ll interplant the garlic shoots with lettuce, spinach and beet greens, and then harvest the bulbs in late fall, 2012.

Prepare fruit trees for winter: rake up the leaves and compost them somewhere away from the trees to keep the pest population down, check the trunks for borers (apple borer is very common here) and rodent damage, put down a layer of seaweed mulch, then a layer of hay, and wrap the lower portion of each tree in wire screening to keep out the mice and shrews. Eventually I’ll also stamp the snow down in a big circle at the drip line to discourage tunneling. A friend of mine stopped by as I was kneeling on the cold wet ground and messing with string and mesh, and asked me why I bother, since none of my trees ever showed any damage? Ayuh.

Clear out the peas: One of my favorite garden tools is hemp twine. I used to spend time and energy ripping the vines out of nylon netting; now I cut the string from the poles and compost the whole heap together. Brilliant!

Return to the house cold and damp all over. Build a fire, make dinner, work on a painting, and go to sleep under two quilts; repeat until April.


Halloween Owl

This morning someone came by and dressed Social Capital Owl as a rather formal tiger for Halloween. There’s a bowtie involved. . .

The mystery neighbor even taped the ears to the plastic owl “horns” so they’ll stand up to the wind and rain, and took away the summer costume of a child’s yellow sun dress and flower garland. Nice job!

Bees, headed for a Fall

I was still traveling (unexpectedly) on Saturday and missed that warm, sunny window of opportunity to put the bees to bed for the winter, but that’s what happens to Beekeepers with Day Jobs. I’m not at all sure I could make a living wage by keeping bees, so it all evens out but still – it was so hard to spend Saturday looking out at the warm autumn landscape from an Amtrak car  en route to Portland.

Sunday was cooler and blowing a steady 15 – 20 mph out of the NW, but we managed.  I took the Styrofoam feeder boxes off the top of the hives and put a layer of newspaper right on top of the frames.  The newsprint does a great job of soaking up and holding moisture from condensation in the hive.  I keep a top entrance going all winter (until the bees close it themselves with wax and propolis) so the paper is retracted just a bit under the hole to allow easy access to the comb.  The bees will chew some of this paper away and  I’ll replace it with a big piece of hard candy on some warm day during the February thaw.

Then the top board goes on and the insulated hive wrap is taped up around it, followed by more newspaper. I smoke the hives and wear a full suit for this chore because the bees don’t like change in general and the sound of duct tape ripping off the roll in particular.

An active colony will have built comb all the way up to the feeder over the course of the summer. These were empty of sugar syrup, but drain them if you have to and tip them upside down so the bees can rescue any honey from the scrap comb.

Fortunately temps were in the 60’s on Sunday and the field bees were still bringing in bright orange pollen from some hidden stand of asters. Tonight it’s raining hard and 45, but I think the hives are set for their long sleep until I check on them during the spring thaw.




New work

Summer is bad for finished work. Company, traffic, software installations, The Garden, family (as opposed to company), and longer days to be outside all conspire to keep me from the easel. Finally, we’ve reached Fall!

Fallen Peony, 18 x 24 inches, pastel on board