Signs of Fall

We still have a month until the autumn equinox on September 23, but it sure feels like fall started early! The mornings have been misty and the sky is a lot less bright as I do my evening walks though the yard.

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Tomatoes are harvested daily and all the pumpkins and winter squash are relocated from the vines into the pantry. For the past month, my counters have been covered in rotating trays of pears, apples, cucumbers, and tomatoes. The canning pot has taken up its late summer semi-permanent spot on the stove and I’m regularly turning out batches of preserved goods.

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The leaves on the fruit and walnut trees are turning yellow and starting to fall, creating a carpet of yellow around their base. My persimmon tree is so fully loaded the branches are touching the ground. The drying beans are also turning color, the plants slowly dying back, and I’ve stopped watering that bed to facilitate faster drying. Fronds from the asparagus are browning and the red berries are standing out like glowing ornaments.

asparagusbeans

My mind and body is making the shift as well. While our mid-days are still warm and bright, in the evenings I’m sensing the urge to curl up with knitting needles and tea. The high path of the summer sun is shifting, and without its bright light beaming in my window first thing has made me start to sleep in longer. I’m no longer wanting cool refreshing foods but craving heavy winter foods like roasted squash and cheesy gratins. As my friend Diana recently said, “I want rain rain rain and pumpkin!”. I’ve heard (i.e.- read on the interwebs, so it must be true!) that Starbucks has already released the iconic seasonal pumpkin spice latte.

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The chickens have noticed the change as well, and I’m getting significantly less eggs than I did a few weeks ago. Yesterday, only 5. The one turkey left from a raccoon massacre at the pallet palace, who’s taken up residence with the chickens, is growing nicely.

eggs

I’ve been mostly preoccupied in the kitchen, trying to get pound and pounds of pears and tomatoes into jars, but I’ve slowly been working on transitioning the garden into the winter growing season. Eggplants and pepper that never really did anything have been pulled, as well as spent squash vines and the dead tomatillo plants that gave up promptly after forming husks but never set fruit. Hopefully within the next few weeks I’ll make some more space and get kale and beet seeds in, soon to follow by brassica starts.

Late summer and autumn is my favorite season, with the busyness of harvest and I’m reveling in the change of the weather! How are things where you are? What do you love best about fall?

the Perfect Pear Jam

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perfect pear jam

Its pear season! I’ve got an ancient pear tree in the back section of my lot, there are two fully loaded branches that hang over the fence from the neighbors pear tree, and there are about a billion (ok, maybe 5, that I know) people who are trying to pawn pears off on people. As I won’t let good produce go to waste, all pears must go to good use!

pearsLast year, when faced with counters of ripening pears, I turned to this Vanilla Pear jam recipe from Food in Jars for inspiration. After adjusting the sugar quantity and using Pamona’s Pectin, I turned out a few cases of it. This year, I’m back to being inundated with pears, and back to the Pear Vanilla jam jamboree! I’m pretty sure this is the best jam I’ve ever made! As long as I have access to pears, I will make sure to always put up a few jars. 

vanilla mixing in pectin with sugar immersion blender

boiling jam

jam jars

Pear Vanilla Jam

  • 16 cups cored and chopped thin-skinned pears (no need to peel)
  • 4 vanilla beans, split and scraped
  • 4 cups sugar
  • 5 teaspoons Pamona’s Pectin powder
  • 10 teaspoons calcium water

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, combine pears, vanilla beans and all the bean-y goodness that was scraped out. Cook over medium heat until the fruit is soft can easily be smashed with the back of a wooden spoon. Remove the vanilla pods. Use an immersion blender to break the fruit down into a smooth sauce. Add the calcium water. In a separate bowl, thoroughly mix the pectin powder with the sugar, then stir into to fruit. Bring to a roiling boil and boil for 5 minutes.

Fill jars, leaving 1/4″ headspace, and process in boiling water canner for 10 minutes.

yield: 11 half-pint jars

If you are new to canning, make sure to checkout a reputable source for step by step instructions. The Ball website is a great source for all the basic info. 

jam mess

The Sunflowers

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Throughout the summer, sunflowers of all different sizes and shapes have graced my garden, and their time is coming to a close. The petals are dropping, seeds are ripening, and the drying stalks are leaning out at awkward angles. A group of little finches flock to the plants to peck away the seeds, some hanging upside down from the head and some precariously perched sideways on the stalk. These birds are small and fast, and fly way when I get close. I’ve even seen a woodpecker hammering away to get its share of the tasty morsels.

To honor these awesome flowers that brought such color and joy to my garden, I wanted to share a collection of my favorite pictures captured over the past few months. Some have been posted before, some where on my Instagram, some just captured because they made me happy!

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Come with me
            into the filed of sunflowers.
                        Their faces are burnished disks,
                                    their dry spines
 
creak like ship masts,
            their green leaves,
                        so heavy and many,
                                    fill all day with the sticky
 
sugars of the sun.
            Come with me
                        to visit the sunflowers,
                                    they are shy
 
but want to be friends;
            they have wonderful stories
                        of when they were young—
                                    the important weather,
 
the wandering crows.
            Don’t be afraid
                        to ask them questions!
                                    Their bright faces,
 
Which follow the sun,
            will listen, and all
                        those rows of seeds—
                                    each one a new life!—
 
hope for a deeper acquaintance;
            each of the, though it stands
                        in a crown of many,
                                    like a separate universe,
 
is lonely, the long work
            of turning their lives
                        into a celebration
                                    is not easy. Come
 
and let us talk with those modest faces,
            the simple garments of leaves,
                        the coarse roots in the earth
                                    so uprightly burning.

 – Mary Oliver, from Dream Work, 1986

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What’s Growing in my Garden: All about the Cucurbits!

Curcurbits, or squashes, are a regular feature in my garden. And with their large dark green leaves, sprawling and vining branches, and showy orange flowers, they command attention. My prolific summer squashes keep us with steady supply of fresh produce throughout the late spring and summer, and the colorful winter squash will provide savory meals throughout fall and winter.

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Squashes originated in Central and South America over 8,000 years ago. Along with beans and corn, squash was a staple food of ancient America. These plants nourished Native peoples for thousands of years and provided a food base for Maya, Inca and Aztec civilizations. European settlers were quick to add squash into their diets and became a mainstay in homestead gardens.

Squash can be classified as “summer”, the lesser known “autumn”, or “winter” squash, with all growing over the spring/summer season. Winter squash are grown until they are mature and ripen on the vine. the fruit has a hard skin and will store for several months. Autumn squashes, like the winter squash, are eaten after they mature, but do not store well for more than a few months. Summer squash are picked and eaten when the fruit is immature, and have thin, soft skin. They grow quickly and do not store well. While usually eaten cooked, summer squash can also be eaten raw.

The flowers are also edible, and delicious stuffed with cheese, then breaded and fried. If you find yourself getting to many zucchinis than you need, pick some of the female flowers to curb production, and also have delicious treat! The flowers are easy to tell apart.

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Squash are in the Cucurbitaceae family, along with gourds, cucumbers and melons. There are three different species of Curcubita: C. maxima, C. moschata, and C. pepo., and then there are countless varieties found in each species. Curcubitas are monoecious, meaning they have both male and female flowers on the same plant. They are pollinated by insects, and a  favorite of my bees. They are exceptionally easy to cross pollinate, so unless you take great care to isolate the flowers, saving seeds for future plantings will likely result in strange fruit. Any varieties of the same species will cross with each other, and C. pepo and C. maxima will also cross with C. moschata. However, C. pepo will NOT cross with C. maxima. 

In my garden, I have a variety of all types of squash growing. Because I don’t keep isolation distances or take the time to isolate flowers, I don’t save my own squash seeds (yet) and instead plant heirloom varieties from Baker Creek. Summer squash are spaced about 4 feet apart, interplanted in a raised bed with eggplants, basil and sunflowers. Winter squashes are growing 2 feet apart in mounded rows, spaced 6 feet apart, interplanted with nasturtiums and sunflowers, or tucked into corners wherever there is space. There are hundreds of different vatieties of squash, some well known and some that sounds like they are aliens. Choosing which type to grow can be overwhelming, as there are 14 pages of squash in my seed catalog! This year, because we are still in garden development and don’t have space to dedicate to experiments quite yet, we mostly went with standards that we are familiar with.

Summer squash are C. pepo species, and I have one yellow Early Prolific Straightneck, 2 Black Beauty zucchinis, and 1 Costata Romanesco zucchini plant planted.

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Early Prolific Straightneck

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Costata Romanesco

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Black Beauty

Winter squash can be further categorized in the texture and how dry their flesh is, dictating what their best use is in the kitchen. I like to have different types so that I can use squash in many ways. When thinking about what type of squashes to plant, think about what you like to eat. I eat lots of squash soup, curries, and just cubed and roasted- so I look for types that are good for that. I don’t like stuffed squash or plain mashes as much, so I don’t grow as many that are best suited for those purposes. My family is also small, so I have no need for a 20-pound squash. I also avoid squash that have really lumpy skins, to make peeling easier, or ones that are so hard you need a hatched to break open. I like varieties that will store, so I have delicious squash thought the winter.

In the C. maxima group, I have Red Kuri and Rouge Vif D’Etampes growing. Red Kuri is a Japanese squash, and similar to the more well known Kabocha. Its flesh is smooth and dry. It is great for curries, soups, and stir-fries. I made a pretty delicious Red Kuri ice cream one Christmas. Rouge Vif D’Etampes is a very old French Heirloom, and is flattened, with a gorgeous deep orange color. With its medium-dry flesh, and is good for pies, curries and stews.

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Red Kuri

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Rouge Vif d’Etampes

Squash that I have growing in the C. pepo group could be considered the autumn squashes, as they do not store well. These will be the first to eat, leaving the pumpkins for when the nights turn long and (hopefully) the rain falls. I have several Delicata plants, and just one lonely bush White Acorn. Delicata have moist, fine sweet flesh and are best steamed, sautéed or baked. The skins are edible, so they are a great squash to use when you are short of prep time, just cut lengthwise and clean out the seeds! Acorn squash has coarse, moist flesh and is best for baking and stuffing.

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Delicata

White Acorn

White Acorn

Waltham Butternut is the squash growing that falls in the C. moschata species. Butternut squash is my favorite of the squash, and I find to be the best all-purpose of the squashes. With its medium grained texture and medium-dry moisture content, its great for soup, purees, pies, roasted and steamed.

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Waltham Butternut

Another squash that we have growing is a C. maxima, called Red Warty Thing. Baker Creek’s description claims its “a big glowing, oblong globe with glowing, brilliant orange-red and covered with fantastic bumps”. I have no idea what this one tastes like, and planted solely because this is what happens when your husband is told to pick out a squash. So far, it just looks like a lumpy pumpkin.

Red Warty Thing

Red Warty Thing

I have two varieties of pumpkins growing for decoration, Howden Carving Pumpkin (C. pepo) and Wyatt’s Giant Wonder (C. maxima). These seeds were from Renee’s Garden, that I picked up for free at a seed swap. Pumpkins grown for decoration are edible, but not very tasty, as selective breeding has focused on looks rather than taste. The flesh is to stringy to be used for pies, but they are fun to grow for Halloween!

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Howden Carving Pumpkin

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Wyatt’s Giant Wonder

Winter squashes need a long growing season, between 90- 120 days to ripen, so I’ve been surprised to see mine turning orange so early. They are ready to harvest when the skin resists an indent made from your nail, and the stems are dry. I’ve already had one Delicata fall off the vine when I nudged it with my food while watering. Perhaps its because the early heat? Anyone else in California notice this?

What about you, what’s your favorite squash to grow or cook with?

Now Harvesting- Apricots!

Our house and land came with 4 very old fruit trees, a fig, a persimmon, a pear and an apricot. I can only assume they were planted when the house was built, in 1945, or shortly after. My next door neighbor has lived there for over 50 years, and she said she always remembered the apricot being there. So these trees are old, I’m guessing at least 65+ years. At some point, I’m sure there was more, forming a grand orchard.  On old homesteads, its common to find apples and pears, as they are long lasting and keep standing when the others have died away, but stone fruits like apricots and peaches are not as long lived. Normally only surviving for maybe 25-40 years, I consider myself blessed to have my antique apricot!

Blenheim apricot

My tree is seriously lopsided, there are visible rot and canker spots, and I can’t reach the highest branches, but she still produces.

Blenheim apricot

This variety is a Blenheim, which I only know because the aforementioned neighbor told me. When we planted our bare root trees this winter, we made sure to include a Blenheim as one of our varieties. This rosy-blushed fruit with a honey-like flavor is great fresh, dried or canned.

Blenheim apricot

Originally grown in Europe nearly 200 years ago, they arrived in California in the 1880s. Grown mainly in Sacramento and the Santa Clara valleys, the 1960’s began a slow decline in production, with Blenheims losing out in sales to more transportable varieties and cheaper imported fruit from Turkey. Today, Blenheims account for less than 2 percent of overall production, and the number is expected to dwindle further as more trees get uprooted. Because these fruits have a historic value and frankly, they are just good, they have been championed by Slow Foods and are listed on their Ark of Taste list.

Growing up in Santa Cruz, our growing climate wasn’t favorable to stone fruits, so we didn’t have any apricots from our own garden. But my uncle’s house, over the hill in Santa Clara, had an huge apricot tree. He would bring us bags and bags of the rosy orange fruit, and my mom would make jam. I’m guessing the variety of those were Blenheim as well.

Blenheim apricot

When the fruit starts falling to the ground, I know they are ready. A few times a day, I check all the fallen fruit and pick up the ones that are still usable. Ones that are badly bruised, or bug or bird eaten go to the chickens. There are only a few days between being ripe and when they fall to the ground, and most seem to be ripe at the same time. Over this past weekend, I’ve harvested all that ones that I could reach from my super wobbly ladder. Matt came though with the fruit picker and got as many as he could from the higher branches. Any that weren’t quite ripe sat on a plate for a day to ripen. Ones on the very top remain for the birds. Blenheim apricot, fallen fruit

My favorite thing to do with my apricots is to quarter them and dry in my dehydrator. I’m also really enjoying them sliced thin over goat cheese and crackers. I make sure to also share some with my neighbors, as they have enjoyed fruit from this tree long before I came along!

Blenheim apricot, drying apricots,

What about you, do you have an apricot tree or other ancient fruit trees in your garden? How do you like to use apricots?

cat in tree

Bacon helps with harvest

If you want to grow Blenheim, they require 400 chilling hours, so this is a good choice for milder climates. They should be spaced about 15 feet apart or from structures, and does best in well-draining soil. As an early bloomer, they are difficult to grow in areas with late frosts.

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