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October 31st, 2008

Seed Obsession

bio_billSeed catalogs are now the equivalent of the almost extinct “Christmas Wish Book” of my childhood. The Sears catalog contained more cool toys than I dared to dream of having, but that didn’t stop me from circling my favorites when it arrived. Now I highlight vegetable varieties in the thin seed catalogs that show up in my mailbox. With internet seed shopping I can browse the electronic seed wish book much more often – and I do.

Here in Central California I mark the passing of seasons not so much by the weather as by the crops that grow – during our mild winters, short springs, hot, hot summers, and unpredictable autumns. A seed pack or two may be sufficient for tomatoes and eggplants, but succession sowing on a two acre garden sometimes calls for buying “bulk” seeds by the pound or quarter pound or sometimes in one hundred or one thousand seed quantities.

Often these purchases lead to leftovers from year to year and the need to store and inventory seed PRIOR to buying even more. Sleepless hours last night were spent sorting the bags and packets and logging quantities into a list. Part way into the fall planting season I find that I have seed for two dozen different cool weather crops. Not enough! Some varieties and even some whole categories missing.

Transplants have been set out for broccoli and cauliflower. But where’s the seed to go in the greenhouse for midwinter and spring transplants? And how did I end up with TWO quarter pound bags of All Seasons Cabbage seed but not so much as a packet of gailan or bok choi or even a red cabbage?

Last winter I “discovered” how delicious kohlrabi greens are – even when the greens are purple. So I planted them early this year. Not a one came up. Now I have no kohlrabi seed!

Back to the internet. Favorite seed sources. I must have seed for peas in spring. And spinach. Bibb lettuce. More seed, MORE SEED…

October 28th, 2008

Saffron – The World's Most Expensive Spice – But the Bulbs are Cheap.

bio_lesliedHi All, Leslie in Las Vegas here.

I started to harvest my Saffron crocus, C. sativus, blossoms last week for the spice.  Saffron loves growing in a climate with hot dry summers and cold winters and this makes it a perfect plant for my Las Vegas garden.  The reason the spice is so expensive is that harvesting is very labor intensive; lots of bending and crawling around on hands and knees because they grow so close to the ground.  4,000 of the orange stigmas weigh only about 1 ounce.  But the bulbs are cheap.


Last summer I relocated my saffron crocus bulbs to another bed.  When I started digging to lift them I couldn’t find one bulb and I thought I must have killed them.  So, I went into the house for some lunch, (comfort food), and cried on Bill’s shoulder and then I dragged myself back into the garden to put my tools away.  I reached for my trowel and sitting right there where I tossed it was a big fat crocus bulb, the biggest one I’ve ever seen.  It was an inch in diameter and so much bigger than the bulbs I bought mail-order that I had to inspect it to make sure it was saffron crocus.  “Where did you come from?”  As I began to dig down deeper I began to uncover more clumps of bulbs.

I originally planted the bulbs 2 – 3″ deep so I expected that this is where they would be.  Not so.  Those guys must have grown legs because they travelled down to at least 6″ deep.  I needed my pointy shovel and not my hand trowel.  As I dug I kept getting more and more clumps of bulbs; a huge amount more than I had planted (Oh Boy!).  My 100 bulbs had increased to well over 1,000 and I had to quit counting.  Hello Ebay.

Saffron crocus blooms in the fall and in my garden this is mid-October.  The first part of the plant to break the surface of the soil is a tuft of chive-like foliage with the fragrant blossom following about a week later.  The foliage continues to grow all winter and begins to go dormant when the weather warms.

Saffron crocus is crocus sativus and this is important to remember if you want to grow it for food flavoring.  It is not the inedible fall crocus that are so popular and may be poisonous. A good way to tell them apart is this; the fall blooming crocus have 6 stamens and the crocus sativus have only 3, the stamens are yellow.  If you live in a hot and dry climate with cold winters you can probably grow saffron crocus.

I harvest the blossoms in the morning by snipping them off to bring inside.  In the kitchen I snip off the 3 orange threads, the stigmas; this is the spice.  Sometimes I forget to turn off the ceiling fan and the threads will scatter, but today I remembered and was able to save every thread from the grip of the dust bunnies.  Threads that we don’t use right away are dried and stored in a glass spice jar.  We have never been able to fill up the jar.


We use about 3 threads per person to flavor a dish and the few threads we store don’t last us for very long.  Last night Bill fixed Saffron Rice for dinner and tonight we will have Broiled Catfish with a Saffron Sauce.  By the time you read this we will have eaten the saffron in the photo.

October 22nd, 2008

October in Texas

LeslieHSo sorry to hear the rest of you talking about frosts these days! We’re still in the balmy 80’s here in the Lone Star State. Our first frost usually doesn’t make an appearance until late November.
My fall tomatoes are beginning to ripen now and fall blooming perennials and annuals are strutting their stuff. Chrysanthemums, asters, fall marigolds and crotons adorn Dallas Gardens at the moment. Roses put on a bounty of fall blooms as well as salvias and Mexican petunias. The hyacinth bean vine is fruiting nicely. While grown mostly as an ornamental annual vine here, the pods are edible and make a lovely addition to a nice salad. My white rainlilies have been blooming gangbusters lately and have been a lovely companion to purple angelonia. My blue sky vine (Thunbergia grandiflora) is coming into it’s fall glory as of late. This plant definitely stops traffic when in bloom!  Pansies, violas and Iceland poppies have just made their way into the garden centers here. Soon it will be time to plan my winter/spring color display.

We might actually get some rain today, which bodes well for the tiny lettuce, broccoli, pak choi, and other cool season veggie seedlings in the garden. I’m still harvesting black-eyed peas from the garden as well as huge radishes and more hot peppers than I’ll ever be able to consume. Collard greens are beginning to take over…have to figure out how to get my husband to eat those…The English, snap pea  and fava bean seedlings are about 18″ tall now and just now starting to put on flowers.  I’m hoping they’ll gave a growth spurt here soon. The cole crops set out by transplant about six weeks ago are trucking along nicely. I imagine I’ll have some broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and more to harvest in a matter of weeks. Can’t wait for fresh lettuce from the garden again.

Fall is such a great time in the Texas garden. There’s more than I have time to update you on, but I’ll do my best to keep you posted!

October 15th, 2008

Oh Nuts!

bio_lesliedHi All, Leslie in Las Vegas here.

I started picking my Pistachio nuts Oct 11th.  These 3 trees, 1 male, 2 females, were planted 8 years ago and this is the first year we have had a good harvest.  In previous years we would pick the nuts and 99% the shells were empty, called ‘blanks’ by the growers, so I thought something was wrong with the trees; insects, virus or watering issues?  But the trees looked healthy to me, so 2 years ago I started making calls to ‘the experts’ and finally connected with a pistachio farmer in California who explained I needed to be patient. “Don’t sell the house and don’t cut down the trees.”  He said, “It takes about 8 years of growing before you get nuts.”   Oh, Nuts!  That’s not the infomation I got from the expert at the nursery.  I inspected them season after season, year after year for that illusive insect, that mysterious virus, the missing pollinators, the plugged-up irrigation emitters, poor soil.  My middle name is patience.  But honestly, I was beginning to wonder if they would make good firewood.

1But now that I have a harvest I am tickled pink and I know some pistachio things to share with you, such as:  I did everything right and I have 3 very healthy trees.  And I’m gaining some experience as I harvest my nuts.  I’ve learned that it’s easy to tell when the pistachio nuts have ripened, and that the husk will change color to a dusty rose and begin to split.  This split in the outer husk is an indication that the hard inner shell has been forced opened by the increased size of the nutmeat.  Look at the nut on the far left in the picture and you will see a small split in the husk; this nut is ready to eat, but the nutmeat will still get a little bigger and so will the split if I wait a little longer to pick it.  Over the next couple of weeks I will harvest the nuts, one at a time, that have split husks.  These are the nuts that are fully mature; the hard inner shell has opened and the plump green nutmeat is peaking through and sometimes it is bulging through.  When I pinch the outer husk on one end it will split effortlessly and the hard inner shell with the nutmeat in it will pop out of the husk.  Unfortunately, not all the nuts on the tree, or even in a cluster, will ripen at the same time.  To get the plump and ripe nuts it’s a look-and-see-and-pluck operation here at The Sweet Tomato Test Garden.

I have known for years that commercial pistachio growers use a machine that shakes the tree vigorously causing the ripe and ready nuts to fall to the ground where they are gathered and processed.  But, what I just learned is during the shaking process is this; many immature nuts also fall, and these are the nuts whose shells break our finger nails and drive us mad trying to open them.

This past weekend I found out that the shells don’t pop open during roasting (bummers) like I thought they would; like a clam shell in boiling water.  So, after one day of preparing my harvest I learned not to pick pistachios unless I see the split in the husk, and a longer and wider split is an indication of a bigger nut inside.  For easier husking, I also learned not to leave the nuts on the tree until the husk starts to shrivel and dry.

Fresh picked pistachios taste different than the nuts you buy in the stores and they are plump, moist and tender with a crunch. To eat them raw you husk them, wash them well in cold water and spread them out to dry.  To salt them you can dip them in very heavily salted water; a huge amount of salt until the water won’t dissolve any more of it.  You can also roast them in the oven at 225F for about 20 minutes, or more if you prefer a dryer nut. I’ve read that pistachios will keep in the fridge for about 3 months and about 6 months or longer when frozen.  The oil in nuts will eventually turn rancid, but cooling helps to slow down this activity.

After I planted my trees I heard that there are pistachio trees with a male branch grafted onto the female tree.  But if you have the space, one male can pollinate about 6 female trees.

Today a garden visitor mentioned a laboratory in California that is experimenting with grafting a male person’s limb onto a female person for girls that live in small spaces. . . . A strong arm for help around the garden?  Imagine the possibilities. “I’ll take an extra arm for back scratches please, and graft it right above my tookus. A little to the left, please.  No, just a little higher.  Now over to the right a little.  Ahhhh, that’s the spot.”

October 10th, 2008

Fall Begins…

Here in Central CA we’ve slid into fall in quintessential fashion. Gradual cooling for the past couple weeks, mixed with occasional mild afternoon heat. Cool, dewy mornings, giving way today to blustery breezes for a good part of the first official day of fall.

The garden is just as typical of fall as today’s weather. Cucumbers and tomatoes have all but given up. Melons are dwindling after a raucously productive late summer. Cayenne and bell peppers are turning beautiful full red. The various varieties of eggplants are stalwart, maintaining their production in shades of white to deep purple. Winter squash and pumpkins have all been gathered and walnuts are ready to pick.

Just in the nick of time, as the summer bounty wanes and I’m feeling sated by summer squash and melons, the arugula and mustard are ready for bunching. Red Russian kale will follow. All three of these and more will soon go in salad and stir-fry; and when the rain and cold weather arrive there will be soup.

Spring arrives with anticipation and with excitement for the coming summer feast. Autumn’s onset is melancholy as tomatoes and sweet fruit give way to roots and greens. But every season brings its blessings… and soon there will be pumpkin pie.

Happy Fall!

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