Tuesday, March 26, 2013

How to Get Your Tomatoes Through a Deep Freeze: AKA Homemade Smudge Pots

After the whoopin' Ma Nature's given me this year I've been a little downhearted.  So when the weatherman said it was going to freeze again, I almost threw in the towel on the tomatoes.

Yeah, right.  Had you goin' there for a minute, didn't I? Heh, heh.

Last year, a delightful customer at work gave me a tip that I've kept in the back of my mind ever since.  She told me how to make homemade smudge pots to add a little extra warmth under the row covers on those extremely cold nights.  You know those tall prayer candles, the ones in the glass jars that burn for days?  You just bury them halfway in the ground in the middle of your beds, light them, and cover with a clay pot.  Walla!  Insta-heater, no electricity needed!

Us gardeners are a hardheaded lot, so I filed that away in the Brain Folder marked "Eccentric Ideas" thinking I'd just get more Christmas lights in a couple months and do what I've always done.  ...  Fast forward to Christmastime.  ...  Man, Christmas lights are expensive!  I'll just fix the ones I have.  ...  Fast forward through hours of maddening electrical fiddling wherein I decide Christmas lights aren't really so expensive. ... Man, Christmas lights are hard to find!  But it's still two weeks 'til Christmas Day!


Last week, the news started calling for a cold front.  I tucked the third round of tomatoes under two layers of row cover this time (yeah, you CAN teach an old dog new tricks).  Their neighbors the peppers were treated the same.  I kept an eye on the weather all that week and every night the weatherman's voice rose an octave as he described the coming cold in ever stronger adjectives.  The night before the front was to arrive, he had me scared.

The shop light lamps I'd used before with incandescent bulbs in them didn't cut it.  One 75 watt bulb in each
bed just didn't offer enough warmth, not for the arctic blast we'd had just a few weeks ago that was about to
be repeated.  Yeah, I'd now added another layer of row cover for extra warmth, but I was still scared.

Sunday night after work, I made an emergency run to the local grocery store.  I crossed my fingers 'til they hurt as I scurried from aisle to aisle, looking for those candles.  Please, GOD, help me find them (I figured of all people, He'd know where they were.).  Housewares?  Nope.  Greeting cards?  Nope.  Ethnic foods?!  Nope.  You'll never guess where I found them.  Office supplies.  *scratches head*

Never mind!  I was successful in my quest!  And they were CHEAP!  A buck fifty apiece!  I bought twenty.

Hours later, after suffering through freezing (literally) temps, I had them all planted amongst the plants, all lit and happily casting a warming glow throughout.

Success.  Now, time for bed.  All tucked in myself, heater emanating warmth in the bedroom, Downton Abbey on the telly, knitting in my lap, a smile contentedly crept over my face.  Not again, Ma Nature.  I'm learning.


Materials needed for a 4'x8' bed, including tax:
2 prayer candles ................................ $3.50
2 clay pots ........................................ $5
2 saucers, 4" size .............................. $3
1 "long-stemmed" lighter ................... $4
Total: ............................................... $15.50

Just dig a hole to bury the candle, leaving a couple inches above the soil surface.  Light it and wait a few minutes to make sure it'll stay lit.  This is important if the candle is brand new.  It takes a bit of time for the wax at the surface to melt enough that it's liquid enough to be drawn up into the wick, saturating it with the wax so it'll stay lit and burn all night.  Bet you didn't know that about candles, did you?  Well, I did, but I forgot.  The first two I lit went out shortly after I covered them with the pots.  I'm glad I checked them before re-covering with the row cover.

Cover with the clay pot.  Don't push the pot down into the soil.  It's better if it's catty-wampus, with some edges up off the soil creating holes where air can come in to help the flame burn (dig a bit of dirt out from under the edge of the pot if you have to).  I'm thinking this also creates a draft, moving air around under the row covers: the air heated by the candle flame rises up through the hole in the pot, and that pulls more air in through the holes near the bottom.

Extinguish them during the day if temps are going to be over fifty by putting the pot saucers on top.  The row covers will keep things plenty toasty, so there's no sense wasting the candles.

Important Safety Note: I think row covers are quite flammable, so be careful to light the candles and not the row cover.


Today, after the freezing temperatures are behind us, I'm a happy little camper.  I've already been outside to peek under the covers and all is well despite the record-setting cold - 23 degrees at my house.  The peppers were a little nipped, so I think an extra candle in their bed next time would help (If you've got peppers in your bed, cluster the candles closer to them, or just put another candle in there.).  And one tomato was damaged a good bit because the candle next to it went out (I'd had trouble keeping that one going, so should have put another one in it's place. Live and learn.).

I'm so thrilled with this little idea I could pop!  I SO can't wait 'til that customer comes back in so I can thank her.

As I was out there burying the candles and freezing my butt off, I thought, "Too bad this can't be done ahead of time.  But if it is, when I irrigate, the candles will fill up with water."  *light bulb!*  Little pot saucers!  Just cover them with little pot saucers.  The ones that you put under pots to catch draining water.

As I went out today to check on things and take pictures for this post, I put a little pot saucer on top of the candle to illustrate and it even snuffed it out for me.  Genius!  I don't have to lean over and blow them out.  (Remember: I'm not lazy. I'm efficient.)

I think I'm going to use this idea in the future.  A lot.  And retire my beloved Christmas lights.

Swiss Chard Quiche with Cream Cheese Crust

The Swiss Chard's been going (growing?) nuts and the two little hens I have left are laying their butts off (heh-heh), so when I decided to cook some goodies for a friend in the hospital, I looked at the largesse and thought, "Quiche!"

No ordinary quiche would do though.  Spending a month in the hospital sucks, so this one had to be special.  It had to be comfort food.  "Bacon!" I immediately thought.  Nope.  He's a vegetarian.  "Then cheese!"  Yep.  That'll do.

I've made quiche before.  Who hasn't?  But remember: I wanted this one to be special.  I didn't want it to be just meh like many of my previous attempts.  I had two dozen beautiful eggs and an armload of gorgeous organic chard.  How could I turn them into something other than glorious?  Not trusting my cooking skills, I immediately went to the intertubes for recipes.  Anybody ever Googled for a recipe?  Yeah, I can hear you laughing from here.

But a wonderful thing happened.  Driven by a desire to make something that would truly comfort my friend, something to make him feel hugged from the inside out, something he wouldn't have to just choke down to keep his belly button from rubbing his backbone, I didn't do what I usually do: search through recipe after recipe, page after page, hour after hour, then give up, let my laziness kick in and just go make the dang thing (which was why I usually ended up with meh).  Nope, I hung in there.

And I found Food.com, a place you can make recipes do everything but backflips.  With just a couple clicks, you can add recipes that look good to a personalized cookbook (or cookbooks you name yourself) so you can find them again later, a calendar to keep track of when you want to make them (called a meal planner), or a menu planner to collect all the recipes for a specific meal in one place where you can even set the number of people you plan to feed and it scales all the recipes for that many servings.  Handy!

No, it's not perfect: the help section is non-existent so you have to search the forums or do trial-and-error to learn how to navigate the site, and the recipe sifter's kind of buggy.  But I can deal in order to benefit from the other great things.

Like how you can click on "Add to shopping list" and put all the ingredients for each recipe along with their amounts on a list where you can then remove the items you already have and print the thing to take to the store with you.

This rivals redoing the spice cabinet as the best thing to happen to my cooking in ages.  I found lots of recipes that would work, but none sounded exactly right.  So I drew heavily from a handful that sounded close and made my own.  And what else did the site let me do?  Add my recipe so I wouldn't ever lose it!  *swoon*

Tada!  Introducing Silverbeet* Quiche with Cream Cheese Crust.  Nomnomnomnomnom.

Serves 10 ~ This freezes well, so make the whole big batch, eat as much as you can, then freeze individual servings for later.

8 leaves Swiss chard (aka Silverbeet)
18 eggs
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup romano cheese (grated or shredded)
1/4 cup butter
12 garlic cloves
1 medium onion
1 tablespoon turmeric
1 pinch salt and pepper (or to taste ~ I used white pepper)

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup butter
1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon herbes de provence

1. Melt butter in cast iron skillet. Add garlic and onion, diced fine.
2. Cut stem from chard leaves and chop into small pieces, about 3/4 of an inch long. Add to butter, et al, in skillet. Stir fry until translucent.
3. Chop the green portion of the leaves into bite-sized pieces. Add to the skillet and cook until wilted.
4. Mix up crust: Combine all dry crust ingredients (flour, salt, pepper, Herbs de Provence) in a bowl and combine well. Cut in butter and cream cheese. Mix well and set aside, covered.
5. Combine remaining ingredients in a bowl (eggs, cream, Romano cheese, turmeric, salt and white pepper) and whisk until well blended. If the turmeric and other dry seasonings don't want to mix into the eggs, use an electric mixer.
6. Grease your baking pan (I used a 12x17x2.5 inch deep roasting pan) and press the crust into the pan evenly across the bottom. If you want to go up the sides of the pan, do. If you don't, don't. Just make sure the sides are well-greased.
7. Turn your oven to 350 degrees. Pour the filling into the baking pan and bake at 350 until all the eggs are set. If you want to, you can sprinkle more cheese on top right before baking.

*Yeah, I know.  It's Swiss Chard.  But "Silverbeet" just sounded so much fancier.  I like fancy.  Fancy's good.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Tomatoes are finally all in the ground!

And here they are, right before planting, being photobombed by a jealous pepper:

Not to worry, Pepper.  Your turn is coming next.

I also got the new flowerbed planted.  The gladiolas I planted last week are coming up. YAY!  They are my favorite flower (Well, at least one of the top three...).  I also planted zinnias, cosmos and Hopi Black Dye sunflowers in there from seed, along with a couple of Gerbera daisies from transplants.  I need to get more of those.

The herb bed next to it is coming along.  Planted some stevia just behind the moon face.  Later, I hung some Christmas lights across the garden shed to the left of this bed and carried them across to the post in the pic and down into the bed itself.  I had one little string of blinky lights, so tucked them under the front of the curly parsley.  As I was sitting out there having a beer just after dark, I noticed it looked like a miniature forest under there.  So magical!  I need to put a tiny fairy house in there with them.

The potatoes are sprouting, the leeks I planted last week are doing well after the move...

Future potato-leek soup.

... and the rest of the winter veggies are still doing great.

I've got eight 4'x12' beds so far, with room for four more that size.  

Right now, the first three beds at the top of the picture have the winter veggies in them, fourth bed coming this way has potatoes and leeks in it, next two beds contain tomatoes (I was a good girl and kept it to only 36 plants this year ... so far.), the next bed is peppers (second bed from the bottom of the picture), and the last bed has early bush beans and squash.  I'll plant some cukes in there, too, once I get some seeds.

I'm so excited about these raised beds!  I can pack so much more stuff in them than in the wide rows I had before.  Once I get the next four beds done along with some one-foot wide ones along the fenceline, I'll have room to plant everything I want to this year: more bush beans, yard-long beans, okra, purple hull peas, luffas, lots of basil, sweet potatoes, corn and more summer and winter squash, including spaghetti squash.  I'd found it hard to fit everything in before.  Not anymore!

Of course the warm season crops going in means that the cool season things are on their way out.  Bummer.   

I'll miss you, Pansies.

Friday, March 8, 2013

You're not really gardening if you're not killing a few plants.

Well, then, I'm really gardening now! 

Got the first round of tomatoes planted Wednesday February 27th, hung a light on the row cover frames, and covered them.  A few days later I went out there to check them and turn on the water.  Out of 23 plants maybe five were still alive and, from what I could see peeking under the row covers, they didn't look so hot.

It'd been in the upper twenties most every night since planting.  The weatherman said it even got to 21 in "North Spicewood" which I think is me.  I knew it was coming.  I should have waited a week to plant.  I guess I thought the row cover and one incandescent bulb in each bed would be enough.  Bummer.

Oh, well.  You rolls your dice and you takes your chances.  (Sorry ~ no photos of the carnage.)

I bought some more, and went out to replant Thursday.  When I took the covers off the bed to start removing the little dead rootballs, I noticed there was one still alive!  And it looked hardly worse for wear ~ just a little singe on one set of leaves.  I'm impressed.  Kellogg's Breakfast it was.  I did some research to see if it was from a cold climate.  It seems it is from West Virginia originally, by way of Michigan.  Hmmmmmm.  I think I need to do a 'speriment next year on cold tolerant tomatoes...

Here's the list of the ones that were toast:
Black Krim
Cherokee Purple
Green Zebra
Aunt Ruby's German Green
Mortgage Lifter
Arkansas Traveler
Brandywine (pink potato-leaved)
Large Red Cherry
Gardener's Delight
Black Cherry
Sun Cherry

I re-bought and re-planted most of those as well as these:
Garden Peach
White Cherry
Yellow Pear

I have room for a few more, so I'm on the hunt for a Snow White cherry plant as well as a few more slicers including German Johnson and Red Brandywine.  Wish me luck.


Update 3/14/13: A few days after planting again, pillbugs and/or cutworms started mowing them down.  ARRRRGH!    In case it was cutworms, I put two bamboo skewers up against each stem of the ones still left, then shook out some Sluggo Plus for the pillbugs.  I need to get some Dipel Dust, too, for added ammo against the cutworms.  Will do that asap.


Update again, 3/30/13: I think it was pillbugs.  I have yet to see one cutworm despite looking for them at all hours of the day and night, but have seen TONS of pillbugs.  I think pillbugs are the top pest for this spring.  Many people are dealing with them this year.  But not me anymore.  That SluggoPlus worked like a charm!  Gotta' get me more of that.
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