So: happy 46

Today was my 46th birthday. And I don’t mind if you or anyone else knows. I’m glad to be 46. I can’t believe it’s been that long! Neither can my mom–she said so in my birthday card.

It was an amazing day. I loved hearing from far-flung friends. Lots of surprises and sweetness. Phone calls and texts. Lovely cards and thoughtful presents. Flowers. David Bowie and iTunes. Plane tickets for summer vacation. A relaxing evening that was supposed to be spent at the gym but instead was spent on the patio with Bruce, overlooking the urban farm and discussing my latest addition to the plan: growing blueberries.

 It would be nice to have more homegrown fruit!  Peach blossoms are a go in 2015.

2015 so far has been a year of refocusing. Last week was the week of getting long put off doctors’ appointments done. And getting back to the gym. And soreness! That’s ok–it makes me feel alive. 

The urban farm is looking springy and green. 

   

Even the little container tomatoes are doing well:  

 

But what I’m most excited about is the fig tree:  

 

It’s spreading and there are lots of shoots. Stay tuned for more photos. Or follow me on Instagram (@julie_petroski) for my random garden shots.

One more thing. Back by popular demand: the gratuitous dog photo! Gidget is our funniest sleeper.

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Sow: dead peppers

The big freeze in North Texas is diminishing our chances for growing our own produce this fall and winter. The peppers are toast, but I salvaged what I could.

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The tomatoes I picked last weekend are turning red and we had a lovely roasted tomato pasta dinner tonight.

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We have the potential for snow tonight so I’m not sure exactly how everything left will do. The agaves are covered. We have the ice melter handy and our trusty snow shovel ready. It’s been raining on and off all day and things are wet so there is the potential of a frozen driveway gate, frozen alley, frozen roads.

The weather is much colder than normal. It’s a little sad for the urban farm, but it feels very eating holiday-ish. And its lending itself to cooking lots of slow cooked foods.

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The roasted tomato pasta dinner tonight was simple: a bunch of the Sweet 100s that have been ripening inside, some peppers from Pure Life Organic, some peppers from our garden, two little zucchinis, an onion, three garlic cloves, three anchovy filets, garlic olive oil, and some fresh ground pepper on a tray. Roasted it up at 400°F for 30 minutes in our Breville toaster oven, then when it was done, I tossed with a little frozen basil puree. I added some chopped up chicken sweet Italian sausage too so I threw it into the frying pan with the sausage chunks and mixed it all up, but the sausage isn’t necessary. It would still be delicious without the sausages. I added the penne directly to the sauce in the pan, tossed, added a little bit of grated parmesan and it was delicious. Most of the meal came from the urban farm or Pure Life Organic farm which makes me really happy. And there’s enough for lunch tomorrow.

The Gs are all very snuggly because it is cold. Today’s gratuitous dog photo shows you the bond between the newest Gs:

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photo by Bruce

 

The toy near George’s head is one of his mice. They are kids’ toys from IKEA and he loves them. Perfect size for his big mouth.

So: fall evening

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It’s a lovely cool fall night. We are hanging out outside with some friends. Bruce made a fire even!

It’s funny how the weather works here. Last weekend it was hot–like over 90. But not this weekend. I love it–it’s a delightful change.

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The summer veggies are still growing though. But I fear that the okra is almost done. Peppers are going crazy still.

We spent time at the vet today. Guinness has a hurt foot–seems like he has something stuck in his paw like a piece of a burr. So he’s the gratuitous dog photo of the day–isn’t his sock cute?

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Until tomorrow! I’ll have an awesome farm story to tell.

So: in summary

Hey! Long time no write! Me, not you. To say that 2014 has been full of surprises is a major understatement. If there’s one thing that 2014 has been, it’s unpredictable. And while many parts of its randomness have been fabulous, they have also sucked up my writing time.

First, let me bring you up to speed about the weather this summer in North Texas. You may remember my frequent rants about the ever-changing weather patterns and their effects on the Urban Farm. This summer, the weather was milder than the usual 100 day strings of 100°F+ temperatures. It rained. Several times, even.

Second, plants like it when they aren’t trying to survive on the surface of the sun. They like it a lot. And they produce tons and tons of vegetables. And when you plant things that thrive on the surface of the sun normally, they go crazy for the cooler weather. I’m not complaining: I have bags of black eyed peas, okra, and roasted tomatillos in the freezer. We have enjoyed many yummy meals and so have our friends and coworkers!

It’s still going too. Fall crops are in — spinach is sprouting, kale transplants are getting bigger, collards are fighting some bug that’s nibbling one them, chard is so beautiful. My coworker’s chickens Jenny and Penny are enjoying all of the “chicken treats” I  bring them from the garden and giving me some eggs in return. The composters are full so I’m glad for the girls.

 

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One of my many instagram photos from the 2014 harvests. Follow me @julie_petroski

 

And that darn feral tomato plant has gone completely insane. I named him “Seymore” after the Little Shop of Horrors’ plant. Seymore is covered in tomatoes (again) and taking up all of raised bed #4. I’m looking forward to more free tomatoes!

 

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Seymore! He’s a Sweet 100 tomato plant.

Third, we built things! Painted things! Traveled to see things! Bought a big thing! More about that later in the month since I’ve decided to force myself to write again by doing NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month). Wish me luck. I may need to can and schedule some posts in order to fulfill my !

NaBloPoMo_November

Fourth, 4th Quarter. Work’s been a little bit busier. Interesting stuff though, so I’m definitely not complaining. In fact, my company let us go home at 3 pm tonight since it’s Halloween. Sweet! Now I don’t have any big plans for it, but if you do, have a great time and don’t eat too much candy. I’ll talk at you tomorrow.

Back by popular demand (ok, mine) is the Gratuitous Dog Photo of the Day!

George says, "it's about time, lady."

George says, “It’s about time, lady. Get back to blogging already.” Photo by Bruce

 

Sow: seed saving

It’s been one of those months. Actually 2014 has been one of those years. I started this post on July 7 and for one of the oh-so-many reasons I haven’t written much this month, including the extra crazy daily harvesting, it got saved to draft.

Well, I’d better get back to writing since believe it or not, in North Texas, late July and the beginning of August is the right time to start getting stuff in the ground for the fall garden.

Yes, I am well aware that it’s the time of year when our little piece of heaven resembles the surface of the sun and children try to fry stuff on the sidewalks and even 5:30 am almost too hot to walk the Gs. But the grass has been unnaturally green for a good long while and the tomatillos and okra are touching the sky. I thank both the random rainfall we’ve had and the fabulous drip system we added to the urban farm.

We are in for another few days of abnormal rainy and cooler weather which seems to be the new normal down here. I hate to say it but it breaks up the sameness even though George has to sleep in his Thundershirt. (I really need to get him a modeling gig with that company.)

One plant that needs to get its seeds planted pretty soon is cilantro. Although you’d think that cilantro would grow wonderfully all year ’round here, it doesn’t. Like many Texas residents, it hates the heat. And the humidity also makes it look ugly, much like my crazy giant Texas hair last Thursday and Friday.

As soon as the weather heads up past 80°F (around 27°C, if I remember right), cilantro goes right to flower and starts tasting like soap. But if the taste of soap brings back wonderful childhood memories of special quality time spent with mom after expressing yourself with colorful grown up words, you’re in luck. You just won’t get any takers in the Mortroski Midcentury. We’ll eat ultra-bitter arugula and like it, but not soap-flavored tacos and guacamole.

I decided instead to let it go to coriander. Yes, that’s right cilantro the fresh green plant makes seeds that are ground into the spice coriander. The plant is also called that in some places, but it’s a little confusing when you ask for it as coriander at the supermarket around here. The dude you ask will take you to the little bottles of spices lined up in alphabetical order, not the produce section.

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Cilantro seeds (aka coriander) drying

So basically, I made my own pack of seeds to plant for the fall/winter crop. And all you have to do is let the cilantro go to seed, then let it dry out on the plant. Then cut the stems and bring them inside to dry out a bit more. I felt a few days was enough.

Next you’ll want to pack your patience or be in an especially cheerful, focused, or maniacal mood because you’re going to pluck the little seeds from the twiggy leftover bits of plant. One. By. One. I actually found it pretty therapeutic, but I also like to destem bushels of basil or shell blackeyed peas before work. Do it at your leisure, however. It does take a little time and if you rush, they go everywhere and one of your dogs will eat them and have breath that smells like an Indian restaurant, which is an improvement in George’s case.

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Coriander up close — looks just like the seed pack or the spice jar!

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The finished result: looks like I’ve got more than enough for fall planting — might have to share

So the cilantro seeds go back in the ground next month. Even though all of the other herbs are growing like crazy it’s the one I miss the most. Maybe it’s that soapy taste. I do have a fondness for spiciness.

Since I know you’ve missed the gratuitous dog photo of the day, I’ll give you a couple:

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Godiva tolerating George

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George tolerating Gadget

 

So: eating okra

I’m not from around these parts, so plenty of people find it very humorous that I grow okra. Usually these native Texans tell me how much they hate okra, how it’s yucky and slimy. Maybe their moms or grandmas made them eat it, but I never ate it regularly as a kid. My grandmother put it in one of her soups and I always thought it was pretty cool since it looks a bit like a flower, but since I didn’t see my grandparents all that often, it wasn’t on the normal vegetable rotation. Still I always scoured my bowl looking for the “flowers.” She probably thought it was pretty funny that I liked it so much.

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how okra grows

Bruce definitely NEVER ate okra until we moved to Texas, at least not knowingly. In Toronto, I don’t remember ever seeing it in the grocery store except in the frozen section. And while it probably grows in California, my mom never bought it.

So here we are in a climate where it’s super hot and dry. Okra likes both of those things as does Malabar spinach, peppers of all kinds, tomatillos, and black eyed peas.Can you tell  I like being a successful gardener (remember my tomato despair)? That’s why we’re eating what grows locally. Just a few okra plants will produce several meals worth per week for two hungry adults until the killing frost comes in November. Nothing is fresher than heading out to the urban farm and picking what’s for dinner right before dinner!

We’ve already had a couple of okra meals in the past two weeks. In North Texas, most people will fry their okra. A few pickle it—I love pickled okra but it’s still too early in the season to do it. You need volume and that won’t really come until August or September. Some people now roast it or even grill okra. All four of those ways are very good, but since we’re of the age where you shouldn’t consume much fried stuff, fried’s not really on our table.

Here’s how we usually eat it:

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Sauté some chopped onions and a jalapeño or any pepper you have on hand in your favorite olive oil (I use a garlic one from Trader Joe’s).

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Chop up some okra into rounds and add to your skillet.

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Let the okra start roasting, then add some frozen corn (or fresh if you have it). 

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Add a can of diced tomatoes (or fresh if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere where you have nice big tomatoes) and let the whole thing cook down for a few minutes.

Now you could season it all up with hot sauce, salt and pepper and pour it over rice or pasta or quinoa and eat it as is, but we usually throw in some fish and have a one-pot meal. I’m also going to try it with chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) this summer.

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This is thawed frozen cod. I just put it on top and let it cook until done. No flipping necessary. I’ve also used tilapia and other white fish.

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The finished product served over a quinoa/rice mixture! See all the little flowers? Add hot sauce if you like — I usually do.

An easy-peasy delicious weeknight dinner that we’ll enjoy many times over the months to come. Let me know if you try it and what special touches you put on it. If I have cilantro, sometimes I add that. Or I use salsa instead of canned tomatoes. The main thing is if you are afraid of slimy okra, do something like this and cook it with something acidic like tomatoes. There’s no sliminess at all, just deliciousness. You can make it with frozen okra too—I freeze our okra whole, then thaw and slice when I’m ready to use it.

Today’s gratuitous dog photo:

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Guinness and George are snuggling together a lot more these days. Not sure what has brought this on, but Guinness doesn’t seem to mind at all. Photo by Christine Watson.

Sow: long weekend landscaping

It’s been a long day with a very tight deadline for work, so I’m up late and writing more as a little wind down, despite my laptop feeling like it’s overheating from the exuberant pounding I’ve been giving it all day. Whenever I am away from the office for a week, there’s usually some sort of fallout. I expected today to go exactly the way it did and I was not surprised.

On the plus side, the weekend was a long one (Memorial Day here in the USA), so today, you’re getting lots of photos. First up was our long weekend landscaping project which fortunately was not hampered by all the (much needed) rain that we’ve been getting since Sunday.

A few days ago, I mentioned that Bruce and I were very unimpressed at the high cost of the type of patio planters we were looking for so we looked to the Urban Farm for a little inspiration: Stock Tanks! These mini stock tanks from Tractor Supply Company are absolutely perfect for some patio accents. Now we just need to find some patio lanterns (ah, a wee bit of Canadian content for you hosers).

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Look at me all covered with dirt and happy as can be. We picked up two tiny stock tanks for the new patio and put blue agave and lemon coral sedum in them. I like ’em! • Photo by Bruce

And guess where they're made...

And guess where they’re made…and if you’re wondering what the blue thing is in the driveway, it’s Gidget’s and Godiva’s wading pool • photo by Bruce

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Mini stock tanks in context after the first of the weekend’s rain storms. At least all of the plants, the grass, and the Urban Farm are super happy with all the water. Our new rain gauge said we received 1/2 of an inch yesterday.

Lots of good stuff to harvest yesterday…and more today.

The gigantic harvests are starting. Lots of good stuff to harvest yesterday…and still more today. From left: power greens mix (spinach, chard, kale), big bag of mint, a huge head of curly lettuce, a bell pepper, a bunch of beets, two jalapeños, and a big bowl of salad greens. 

As a special treat, it’s gratuitous dog photos galore!

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George could finally relax and sleep through the night again. • Photo by Bruce

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And here’s a little update on my sweet pal Murphy: here he is with his new sister Harley. He looks pretty content, don’t you think? • photo by Debbie

Sow: perfection is overrated

When we first started the Mortroski Midcentury Urban Farm, I thought that I had to do everything just right or my garden wouldn’t grow. I tried to mix up the soil and compost just so. I tried to line up the transplants so they would grow neatly and symmetrically. I tried to make sure that the little signs were lovely and durable. I tried to be very organized with my tracking.

Flash forward to Spring 2014. After a very disappointing winter growing season, I didn’t have a lot of patience or time for perfection. I bought mostly seeds, not plants, although I did buy herb and pepper transplants. I bought organic compost from a local Boy Scout named Kyle, not the fancy garden center. And I literally threw seeds into the ground and hoped for the best. Well, I did use a tool called a Garda Dibble which probably helped a lot:

123 Product Photos, LLC (http://www.123ProductPhotos.com/)

Garda Dibble: a fun and brightly colored garden tool

 

So how does the Spring 2014 garden grow?

Just fine. Well, better than fine. Our weekend guests from Toronto said how pretty it looked. (That made me very happy.) It is very green and lush, soon to be even more lush after two super ugly north Texas rain storms over the past 5 days.

Best of all, it’s supplying us with veggies a plenty with lots to give away. Our guests enjoyed many yummy meals filled with ultra fresh veggies from a kale/chard salad to spinach omelets to bok choi stir fries. And of course, lots of raw radishes!

Want to see? Here are some of my views from yesterday:

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malabar spinach growing like weeds

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beautiful rosette bok choi with a two radish photobomb

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baby bell pepper, all shiny and new

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more bell peppers, a bit bigger though

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pole beans have doubled in size since last week and are climbing away

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wacky spiky lettuce!

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yesterday’s harvest: bok choi, salad greens, kale, chard, more radishes (although they are almost done), the first jalapeño, spinach. it’s an amazing abundance!

In the fruit department, the little peaches look plentiful. And there are figs happening too! The teeny tiny figs are so small you almost can’t see them. Time to get some bamboo stakes and bird net so I can see some of them through to maturity. And maybe there will be fig jam this fall.

One of my favorite quotes for 2014 is “all great changes are preceded by chaos.” The Spring 2014 garden’s chaos is teaching me an important lesson: not only is it clear that perfection is overrated, but also sometimes what happens is just a happy accident that works out even better than you could have ever imagined. So go with the flow! Here’s to my 2014 goal of more imperfection and more happy accidents because life’s just better when you chill out.

Today’s gratuitous dog photo:

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Gidget enjoying a weekend morning belly rub.

Sow: not alone

 

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According to the National Gardening Association, 33 million US households have food gardens at home. To put that into perspective, the US Census Bureau estimated that there were 115,226,802 households in the US in 2012.

Still it’s nice to know that there are other people in the US digging in the dirt, getting filthy, and eating the fruits of their labor. But there needs to be more!

(Don’t worry. I’m not going to get all political. If you’re into that, you already know all about GMOs, the industrial farming complex, and the various conspiracy theories. And if you’re not into it, you might want to do some research on your own, but it’s up to you.)

I’m more interested in getting you to grow stuff just because it tastes better. You know I love the yuppie-hippie grocery store. But I’m sorry, in the great state of Texas, no store’s produce holds a candle to the stuff I’m growing in my little urban farm. Even Bruce agrees. And I like nothing better than grabbing a big bowl and walking over to the raised beds and stock tanks to pick dinner.

And truthfully running my fingers through the dirt probably makes me into a nicer, calmer person. That’s my gardening’s gift to the rest of the planet.

So why not join the revolution? Put a few herbs in a pot and call it an act of defiance. Eat something you’ve grown and say “Viva!”

Gratuitous dog photo of the day:

George is exhausted from all the fresh air. Photo by Bruce.

George is exhausted from all the fresh air. Photo by Bruce.

Sow: voluntold

In the gardening world, there are plants known as “volunteers.” These sneaky little devils are not planted by human hand. They just show up and take root. They could be “planted” by the wind, dropped from a bird’s beak, carried by naughty squirrels moving yummy seeds to their eat later stash, or even hidden in the depths of a compost pile.

In my case, it’s possible they’re here to test my sanity, patience, and goodwill to plant-kind.

After my terrible luck with tomatoes for the last two years I vowed that I would NEVER EVER grow them again. And I meant it. Well, I guess I’ve been “voluntold” by the wind, birds, squirrels, compost or something else to grow them this spring. Maybe rejecting tomatoes will be the best thing that ever happened to my tomato farming. Teaches me to give up on a type of plant.

See, two volunteer tomato plants have appeared in Raised Bed #4, where I grew tomatoes last year. They’re nestled in between the thriving power greens: spinach, kale, and chard. Sneaky bastards. Of course, I didn’t have the heart to pull them out once I realized what they were. They’re doing quite well, flowering, growing,  and enjoying the new irrigation system. They even have nice red cages to protect them as they get bigger. Maybe if I continue to ignore them they’ll be fabulous. I can almost taste the ‘mater sandwiches now…

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Volunteer tomato #1, barging in on the spinach

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Volunteer tomato #2, crowding the kale

My other volunteers cheered me up. I was really sad when the beautiful Malabar spinach got hit by the first frost and croaked. Two little plants provided lots of people with green leafy goodness and looked so pretty covering the trellis at the back of Raised Bed #2 all summer and fall. Well, I guess it’s a perennial or it’s decided to be zombie spinach because it’s back. And it looks like it’s more determined than ever — the little plants seem to be doubling every day. Hopefully it doesn’t squeeze out my one surviving bush bean that’s just starting to get close to the trellis. Or bug the okra. But I know I’m going to be happy to have it around when North Texas’ crazy summer temperatures get too hot for regular spinach. I bet it makes great green drinks.

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Malabar spinach is back! Green drinks for everyone!

But I can’t really complain. Even though I wasn’t planning for them, these volunteers are all doing great. And they were 100% free. I’ll keep you posted on how they do.

 

Gratuitous dog photo of the day:

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Godiva decided to see if Gidget’s crate was good for naps. Photo by Bruce