Previous Capers

Saturday, March 31, 2012

It's Baaaaack!

Those darling little purple florets have just appeared.
On the way to the woodpile I passed by the raised beds and was astonished to see Purple Sprouting Broccoli florets! It's barely April and my PSB is putting forth vast amounts of edible purple yumminess. What's really surprising is the fact that it's producing those florets on close to 3 year old stalks.

Granted, this is a variety that takes around 8 months to start producing in the first place. However, I planted the seeds in late April of 2010 and the first summer I got nothing but a thicket of 6 foot tall stalks with 2 foot long leaves that took over the entire 8 ft. by 4 ft. bed. As it turns out, this is an heirloom variety that one should plant in the fall so 8 months later you can theoretically harvest something in late summer. After discovering my oops, I overwintered the bunch but only 3 stalks made to spring. PSB is supposed to be very frost hardy, but these 3 plants survived that early big freeze we had in the fall of 2010. The next spring, those plants exploded and I had so much PSB that a lot of it flowered and ended up in the compost pile because I couldn't keep up with it. I assumed that the mass production were the plants death throws to reproduce before they droop dead. How wrong I was! The plants overwintered a second time and this year, they're producing earlier than ever only this time, I'm determined to nip this in the bud before it all gets out of control. I'll probably freeze a lot of it.

This is a great time of spring for the PSB to be putting out because it's too cold for those pesky cabbage moths and the leaves are pristine. The florets and younger leaves are also very sweet. Maybe several years of the freeze/thaw cycle has increased the sweetness. Sugars are a plant's anti-freeze and there's nothing like a frost to bring out sweetness in Brassicas. I'm chopping up and steaming the smaller leaves and the florets together.

Purple Sprouting Broccoli's culinary origins happen to go way back to the Romans who first cultivated it. Marcus Gavius Apicius, a celebrity chef of the Roman Empire, created one of the earliest known recipe books that called for broccoli to be mixed with cumin, coriander seeds, chopped onions, oil and wine. Hmmm, I wonder where I can get a copy.
Although the Brits have been growing PSB for at least the last 2 centuries, it's just starting to become more common in this country. In the UK, PSB's season is January to May. Here, it appears to be late March to when you're sick of it and let it go to seed. It's definitely a space hog and you can't expect an abundance of large big-box style florets. Visualize the shrunken heads on grown bodies in the movie Beettlejuice and you'll get an idea of the proportions of the florets to the overall plant.

I'm contemplating contacting Guiness World Records when it hits year 10 to enter it as the longest living single crop of Purple Sprouting Broccoli. I'll have to see what the current record is. I could see myself getting as obsessed as those giant pumpkin growers get, sitting up all night to keep the varmints from snacking on my charges and monitoring the plants with an IV.

My guess is that some Darwinian PSB mutation is happening with mine. Or maybe I'm not so quick to whack them down after the growing season. Much to Roland's eye-rolling, I've decided to see how long I can keep these PSB anomalies going before they finally peter out. More bang for the buck that way too. My $3 packet of seeds has gone a long way and I haven't used much fertilizer either. Who knows, this region's predictive climatic transitions to warmer and wetter might just be the ticket to the development of a new cultivar. How does Brassica oleracea 'Debra's Floret Folly' sound? I just love freakish plants, don't you?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Ceramic Pots Aren't All They're Cracked Up To Be

It seems like that at the end of every winter I have broken planting containers to deal with. I like natural materials so I like glazed clay. And using glazed clay pots presents some challenges.

It's not that my pots have gotten smucked by extreme temperature swings nor has freezing moisture done its weathering job. It's the cats! At the end of the season, I often place several small pots on the edge of the front porch (which is pretty much anywhere on the porch given that it's only 4 feet deep and there's ten tons of crap on it already) and every year several of our chubby mogs go plowing through the neat lineup on the way to knocking something else over so they can nap on the spot that they shouldn't. Of course, it's always my favorite pots that get broken. You'd think I'd learn by now not to put them where they get bulldozed off the porch or front steps, but being a creature of habit, I inevitably leave them in an area that is convenient for me. Apparently, however, it's inconvenient for the cats. They're creatures of habit too, and like their established paths uninterrupted with things such as expensive ceramic pots.

A slope with newly installed pot fragments.
As one who is resigned to a cracked pot destiny, I have decided to make the most of it by, you guessed it, re-purposing these clay fragments elsewhere in the garden. Yes folks, they get morphed into a design element. I simply bury them in the slope below the bathtubs and plant something in them. It's sort of Mesopotamian looking, after the earthquake or during an anthropological dig.

In addition to looking earthy decorative, these broken pot halves act as small terraces on a relatively unstable hillside. If the sides of the pot pieces don't adequately sweep around, place some decorative rock along where fired clay meets soil to help hold the pots in place and keep the soil from eroding down the hill. The end result makes the whole thing look like you've broken your $30 pots on purpose just for this project.

Of course, it's critical you plant something in these areas right away because chances are you will have fury supervisors watching you build them new places to poop. Cats are good at re-purposing too.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Evil Twin Series: Bored with Your Garden? Try Squirting Cucumbers

It's so much fun to peruse the internet for unusual seed companies. In fact, I came across a great one from, where else, England called Plant World Seeds. Actually, I was entering search ques for old cottage varieties of perennials when I came across this site. I couldn't help myself; I ordered a bunch of seed packets for unusual varieties of different perennials and bulbs. One in particular definitely caught my eye: Ecballium Elaterium or Squirting-Cucumber. Not exactly something you would typically find at your local nursery. Although the fruit is not very edible, it has another endearing value for those of us that posses an evil twin (formerly known as the Jungian id).

According to Plant World Seeds:

Its name alone is a mouthful. And that is precisely what your curious friends will have when they touch the small plum-shaped fruits....Yellow flowers on radiating stems produce intriguing hanging fruits. Unwary inspection triggers the incredible seed distribution method. The swollen fruit breaks off and shoots downwards (remember Newton's Laws of Reaction) propelled by a high speed jet of seeds and water.

Yes folks, it's a cucumber that shoots itself and its seeds across the yard! In fact, according to one source, the record squirt is 45 feet! The fact that the propellant action is triggered by touch has a potential for some wicked fun. The fruits look like the size of kiwis attached to a very Cucurbit-like plant. I plan to place it in a strategic position where curious passer-byes will have a looksie, then ZAP! I just hope that I'm around to witness the fun. There's a couple of neighborhood walkers that I've caught having a peek at my zuccs before.

Of course, I'm assuming that the cats will provide much of the entertainment. The fruits will be just too irresistible looking not to be batted around. If I see a sproinging cat in that vicinity, I'll know what happened. Cheap entertainment for under 3 bucks, eh?

Leave it to the Brits to provide this one. Squirting-Cucumber: It's so Monty Python.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Floyd Checks Out

Floyd after his recovery
I'm afraid I have some bad news. After several weeks of steady decline, Floyd died peacefully in his sleep last night. Since getting hit by a car in July of 2010, we've kept him going with acupuncture treatments, bladder extractions, many enemas at the vets and lot's of other TLC. Perhaps we should have put him down a long time ago, but he was still Floyd and until recently, actually did have a good quality of life despite the necessary care. He would even pussy foot, head butt and purr at the vet when we brought him into the exam room.

He started to really decline several weeks ago, after his last kitty spa visit. The vet found a lump in his stomach and was planning to monitor it. Floyd would eat like a pig, but became skin and bones. He was also drinking a lot of water. Roland and I think that his weak kidneys caused by previous trouble finally caught up to him.

We'll bury him next to Bonnie in the yard. We'll have to get a rose bush to plant over him, like we did for Bonnie. I'll have to find one with a cultivar name that suits him. I wonder if there's one called 'Problem Child' or 'Lovable Lug'. Perhaps a giant sunflower will grow out of nowhere next to him too.

I'll miss the little delinquent. We're down to 6 cats now and, of course, our dog Snorky. The house is starting to feel empty.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Yet Another Reason to Drink Wine

Shhhhh, don't tell SDOT!
If you like to have a glass of vino with dinner, like I do, you probably grace your recycling bin with many wine bottles....over time. Instead of tossing them in the bin for the weekly pickup, try re-purposing them for simple garden borders. It's easy-peasy to do and the result can be rather striking. You'll need to buy the varietal of wine that's in a bottle with a distinct neck and shoulder. The sloping shoulders of some bottles (like Chardonnay's) won't stay put as well when you plant them in the soil, nor will you get a straight, solid looking connection between each bottle.

If you wish to calculate how many bottles you'll need for your border, multiply the total running inches and divide by 3 inches which seems to be the average width of a wine bottle. So, for 10 feet, which is 120 inches, divide 120 inches by 3 inches. That equals 40 wine bottles. You'll need more than you think you do.

As you know, wine bottles come in several different colors including blue, dark amber and clear; however, green is the most common. Roland and I end up with a lot of that color because we mainly drink 3 Buck Chuck (in our area it's actually 2.50 Buck Chuck now, but that's too awkward to say). The bottles also come in different heights and some have indented bottoms that will catch rain or irrigation water in the garden. To remove the label, simply soak the bottle in hot water for a while. It should just scrape right off. Apply a little mineral spirits with a rag to remove any stubborn glue residue or just let it slowly wear off in the garden. Some bottle labels are actually etched into the glass, so just consider those bottles part of the charm.

Notice the indented bottom-ups on some bottles.
To install your bottle collection, dig a narrow trench with a garden trowel deep enough so the neck of the bottle will be buried up to the shoulder. The shoulder should be cradled on the soil surface. Unless you find or drink just one brand of wine, chances are the bottles will be different heights so you'll need to adjust the depth of the trench. Make sure the bottles are as plumb as possible and snugged next to each other. You can eyeball weather they're straight and tweak them as you go. Pack the soil firmly around the bottles to hold them in place.

If the bottles are on a slope, you might try a pole stake (like bamboo or a hardwood dowel) to hold the bottle more firmly in place. Measure the stake twice as long as the bottle, then with a rubber mallet, pound just the stake into the hole until enough is sticking up to fit well up just touching the bottom of the bottle (or is it the top now? How 'bout calling it a bottom-up). You'll need to put the stick in the bottle and mark the spot where the stake goes to get the spacing right. If you use rebar, then I suggest you pad it with an electrical tape or a rubber tip of some sort, especially where it may be in contact with the neck of the bottle and around the end of the stake or the bottle could break. This technique may also server you well if you're using bottles for raised bed borders, holding back a lot of soil.

Not only are you re-purposing a common item while adding an attractive element to your garden, the wine bottle border will help warm the soil, encouraging happy plants. Depending on the size of your project, you probably can't drink enough wine to construct your border within your lifetime. If you can, well then.... So, I suggest you become a dumpster diving recycling bin raider to collect enough for your weekend project. Ask your wine drinking cohorts to start saving bottles for you. Just make sure you pick them up in a timely manner, before the beneficiary's garage gets overrun. Be forewarned however; upon hearing about this idea your friends may get inspired enough where they'll be competition with you for a somewhat limited resource. Things could get interesting, like an old Woody Allen movie interesting.