Don’t Let Autumn Get You Down

Country Road Autumn

The leaves of brown came tumbling down, remember
That September — in the rain.

― Harry Warren and Al Dubin, September in the Rain

 
I don’t know about you, but the coming of autumn brings on some wistful feelings inside. Seeing the multicolored leaves careening earthward reminds me that the long warm days will soon be replaced by long cold nights. And snow. Lots of snow.

 
Autumn also brings on feelings of bewilderment as to how the days managed to pass by in the twinkling of an eye. Wasn’t it only yesterday that the snow had finally melted away and the earth was bringing forth new life? Didn’t school just let out a few days ago? Why am I now seeing back to school sales in the stores? And wasn’t it just recently that I turned over the soil in the garden and planted the seeds and/or seedlings? Where did spring and summer go?

 
Autumn can also bring on feelings of regret for all the things we said we were going to do but didn’t. The friends not visited; the vacations not taken; the new hobbies not tried; etc. Once again, we let obligations, real or imagined, get in our way. Like thieves in the night, we’ve allowed them to steal time from us — time that should be spent enjoying all the warmth and joy that the spring and summer have to offer.

 
But even now, it’s not too late. Cold weather doesn’t start popping up until late September or early October. Bone-chilling cold doesn’t start coming around until November and the snow doesn’t start rearing its ugly head until late November or early December. There is still time to enjoy the warmth before it’s all over. So visit that friend. Throw that party. Take that vacation — even if it’s only for a weekend. And whether or not you planted a vegetable garden in the spring, you can also plant a fall vegetable garden. Those same cool season crops you planted in the spring, work equally well in the fall.

 
So do it now, while the days are warm and still somewhat long. Then you’ll have no time for bewilderment and regret, as it will be replaced by sweet memories that will keep you warm all winter long.

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Your Cheese Ain’t The Rage If It Ain’t Got That Age

Cheese Cave

 

What is this thing called cheese? Cheese can be defined as coagulated milk solids that have been drained, pressed and aged. A simple broad definition that barely scratches the surface, because cheese is so much more than that. And what makes it so is that last part of the definition — aged. It is aging that gives the product its flavor and character.
While most of the soft cheeses such as Cottage Cheese, Mascarpone, Neufchȃtel, etc. can be enjoyed immediately after making them and do not need to be aged, hard cheeses such as Cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan, etc. have to be aged to develop the flavor that makes them what we expect from, Cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan, and any other hard cheese. If they ain’t aged, then they’re not really cheese. They’re just compressed curd.
So how do we go about turning compressed curd into cheese.
To properly age cheese, it must be placed in a temperature and humidity controlled enclosure for a length of time. The ideal temperature and relative humidity for aging cheese is 45-60ºF and 75-95%, respectively. These conditions allow for optimum exchange of ripening gasses from the cheese (e.g. carbon dioxide and ammonia) with oxygen from the air, all of which is highly important for flavor development.
If your aging chamber is too cold, the cheese will not develop the proper amount of acid for a safe and flavorful product. If the temperature is too warm, then the cheese will develop a sharp and pungent flavor and/or undesirable microbial growth. If the humidity of the aging chamber is too high, then undesirable mold will grow on the cheese and it will have to be checked more frequently. If however, the room is too dry, then the cheese will shrink and crack.
So where do you find a place that meets the aforementioned temperature and humidity requirements? Many home basements will satisfy this requirement. If necessary, you can purchase a small humidifier or hang wet towels in the basement to control the humidity. You can also purchase a second hand refrigerator or a small dorm-sized refrigerator. Your regular kitchen refrigerator is usually too cold and dry for aging cheese, but with a second refrigerator, you can set the temperature where you need it and then place a small bowl of water or damp paper towels inside to raise the humidity. Lastly, you can purchase a wine cooler. These are specially designed for precise adjustment of temperature and humidity.

Cheap-Mini-FridgeWine Cooler
How long should you age cheese? That depends on the cheese and how strong a flavor you want. Cheese can be aged for as short as a few days to as long as a few years. The longer a cheese is aged, the sharper and stronger is its flavor. The difference between a mild Cheddar and a sharp cheddar is simply the length of time which it is aged. Most hard cheeses should be aged for a minimum of sixty days. Some hard grating cheeses like Parmesan and Romano may be aged for years to develop a very strong flavor.

 
With an enclosure set at the proper temperature, you too can turn your compressed curd into flavorful, delicious, honest to goodness cheese!

Plant A Garden And Share A Harvest of Love

Garden in Heart

Plant a garden. Why bother? That’s a subject I’ve covered in previous newsletters. There are lots of good reasons to plant a garden – fresher and safer produce for you and your family; exercise and fresh air; better for the environment, etc. But there is yet another good reason for planting a vegetable garden – to extend all these wonderful benefits to the world around you.

Look around your neighborhood or town. Is there a poor family that barely gets by on meager earnings that doesn’t allow them the luxury of fresh fruits and vegetables? Has a family’s sole breadwinner recently lost their job and then beset with other challenges such as sudden illness, injury, natural disaster, etc. that put new pressure on their finances? Or maybe you just know some folks that for whatever reason are unable to grow their own garden. Well, why not share some of your bountiful harvest with them?

When you share your garden bounty with others, you are making a difference in other human beings’ lives in ways you may never be able to even imagine. For starters you are providing them with fresh and nutritious food. That’s a given. But you are also doing so much more. The simple act of sharing what you have with those who are hurting is a blessing that not only feeds bodies, but lifts spirits, wipes away tears, and forges bonds of friendship that can last a lifetime.

So don’t let that excess harvest go to waste. Share it with your neighborhood or even with your community or town. Because, my friends, your simple act of generosity is doing more than filling bellies. It is spreading love. And boy, do we need to be sharing more of that!

How To Grow A Lousy Garden

Yes, you read that right. The lousy garden. A patch of dry ground that is either completely bare or choked with weeds. Truly, the anti-nirvana of gardening. Its creation has always been a closely guarded secret. But for you, my loyal reader, I’m now going to reveal the secret tactics for growing and harvesting this bumper crop of nothing.

Use the soil as is – Heck, it’s good enough for the lawn, so it should be good enough for the vegetables. Why waste money and time with compost and fertilizer?

Give little thought to where you situate the garden – No sun? No problem!

Never water – My water bills are high enough. Why do I need to provide water for my garden? Don’t we get rain? Isn’t that enough? Now excuse me, I have to go water my lawn, because a green lawn is a happy lawn.

Never weed – Weeding is hard work! I don’t want to break a sweat. Besides, it’s the weekend. My tee time is at 9:00, and after that, I plan to spend the rest of the afternoon lying in my hammock and drinking a tall cool glass of lemonade.

Use lots of pesticide – Uh oh, there’s a bug on my tomato plant. I don’t know what it is, but it’s probably up to no good. I want it dead, so I’ll spray gallons of this stuff made of complex chemicals I can barely pronounce. Besides, the manufacturer says it’s safe, so I believe them. They wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true. And who cares if I kill a few birds, bees, or fish? All that matters is that my plants are bug-free.

Just follow these simple instructions, and I absolutely promise you that you will have the garden of your nightmares.

But what if you want a garden that actually produces? Well, there are simple tactics for achieving that too. All you have to do is the opposite of all the above.

You’re welcome.

Eat the Weeds

garden-with-weeds

Weeds. We hate them. They compete with our fruit and vegetable crops for nutrients, water, and light. They are overachievers when it comes to growth. Removing them mechanically is hot, dirty, tiring, backbreaking work, and removing them chemically is poisonous to our environment and hazardous to our health. Of course, you can lay down mulch, which is a less labor intensive and more environmentally friendly way of controlling the weeds. But I’m going to offer you a fourth option. To paraphrase a passage from the bible, open your mouth wide, and I will fill it – with weeds. In other words – eat them!

 
“This time, he’s gone too far,” you mutter to yourself while shaking your head, “Is he actually suggesting that I should put those horrible things in my mouth? Chew them and swallow them? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m suggesting. But before you call the men in white coats to have me fitted for an arms-binding overcoat and permanently relocated to a padded mansion, please hear me out. No, I’m not suggesting that you should eat thistle or ground ivy. But believe it or not, there are many plants that grow with impunity in our gardens that are actually fit for human consumption.

 
Dandelion – They are the scourge of those who want a sea of uninterrupted green grass. But dandelions are a nutritional powerhouse! They are an excellent source of vitamins A and C and carotene. The greens are loaded with calcium, iron, and antioxidants, and contain more protein than spinach. The flowers can be used in salads and breads and can also be used to make wine. The roots can be dried and ground and brewed to make a coffee substitute.

dandelion
Red clover – Red clover is chock full of protein and is also an excellent source of beta-carotene, many of the B vitamins, vitamin C and bioflavonoids. The flowers can be used in teas and salads and can also be pan roasted into a crispy treat.

red-clover
Chickweed – This low growing succulent is overflowing with nutritional goodness — vitamins, minerals, and omega-6 fatty acid derivatives to mention a few. Leaves and stems can be added to salads or prepared as a cooked green. Use it sparingly, however; consuming too much at one sitting can cause diarrhea.

chickweed
Purslane – Purslane, with its thick, fleshy stems and leaves is another nutritional powerhouse containing generous amounts of iron, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A and C. Purslane is often used as a spinach substitute, and can be eaten raw or cooked.

purslane
And that’s just a small sample of the many edible weeds out there.
Remember that as long as there are gardens, there will always be weeds. But don’t let them get you down. If you can’t beat ‘em – eat ‘em!

Here Comes Summer!

summer-clipart-summer021

 

In the good old summertime
In the good old summertime
Strolling through the shady lanes
With your baby mine
You hold her hand and she holds yours
And that’s a very good sign
That she’s your tootsie-wootsie
In the good old summertime

― In the Good Old Summertime, by George Evans and Ren Shields

 
Summer officially begins on June 21st at 11:24 PM CDT. Soon, there will be picnics, barbecues, farmers markets, and festivals galore. Carefree days and nights with a million different ways to spend our time. Once again, it’s summertime, and, as the Gershwin tune states, the living is truly easy.

 
Former Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene once described the days of summer as pebbles in a jar. Each day that passed represented another pebble that was taken out of the jar. Eventually, the jar would be empty and summer gone. Greene emphasized that the pebbles should be taken carefully one by one, savored and not rushed. If we get greedy and take too many pebbles at once, then the summer flies by and is gone before we know it. Yet how often do we do just that. We allow the mundane drudgery of life — jobs, projects, and other things to dominate our lives. We take those summer days and nights for granted. Then one day we look up and realize that its September, and we have allowed another summer to pass us by and we’ve barely accomplished half of the things we said we were going to do.

 

Those wonderful days of summer should be enjoyed and cherished and not allowed to pass us by in a blur. Because if we allow that to happen, the next thing we know, we’ll be waist deep in cold white stuff wondering where in the world summer went.

 
So get out there and enjoy each glorious warm summer day and night. Make each day count. They’ll be gone sooner than you think!

At Ease Disease

bacterial-leaf-spot

Something is awry with your garden vegetables. They looked healthy enough a few days ago, but now the leaves are discolored and wilting. What could be wrong? After all, you’ve watered every day. Perhaps you’ve even given it some supplemental fertilizer. Yet it’s all for nought. Those vegetable crops are dying. What caused this to happen? The answer is simple. Disease. Just like the members of kingdom Animalia, the members of kingdom Plantae are also subject to the attacks of fungi, bacteria, nematodes, viruses, and mycoplasmas and all the havoc they wreak.

 
Diseases can be a serious problem in the vegetable garden. Disease-causing organisms can attack your seedlings and kill them before they emerge. They can also attack the stems, roots, and fruit of more mature crops. Left untreated, a bout of disease can devastate an entire crop.

 
All, however, is not lost. With proper care, diseases in your garden can be reduced or eliminated. The key is to stop disease before it starts, because once you notice visible symptoms, it’s already too late.

 
To prevent disease, keep in mind that for disease to have impact, three conditions must occur. First, the disease-causing organism must be present. Second, conditions must be right for the organism to infect, grow, and thrive. Lastly, the organism must find a home on a susceptible plant, e.g. a plant that is stressed, poorly cared for, or otherwise weakened. All you need to prevent disease infestation, therefore, is to take away any one of the legs from the disease stool. Then the disease cannot occur.

 
So how do you break the legs of the disease stool?

 
Crop rotation — Simply put, this means not planting the same vegetable crops in the same place in your garden year after year. Many diseases, such as clubroot and black rot (both of which affect Brassicas), can remain viable in the soil for at least seven years. So if you plant your kale, mustard, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, etc. in the same spot each year, you run the risk of repeatedly infecting your plants with these diseases. But if you move them to another part of the garden, then, you take away one of the legs (e.g. the susceptible plant) from the disease stool

 
Sanitation — This simply means practicing good garden hygiene. Some diseases can overwinter on infected plant parts. If you leave these laying around, then you run the risk of infecting your soil with these disease organisms, and then, by extrapolation, your plants. So clean up all spent plant parts at the end of the year. Clean up the weeds as well, because several diseases use weeds as their transfer agent. Lastly, if you smoke, don’t do it around your tomato plants. Tomatoes are susceptible to the tobacco mosaic virus, which can sometimes survive the tobacco-curing process. Touching your cigarette and then touching your tomato plants introduces the virus into your garden (e.g. leg number one of the disease stool). If growing conditions are right and the plants are stressed, then all is ripe for a mosaic blowout.

 
Water your garden in the morning or early afternoon — Watering in the early part of the day allows plenty of time for the sun and wind to dry wet leaves. Watering in the late afternoon or evening, especially in the early spring exposes the plant to cold and moisture — exactly the right kind of conditions for disease-causing fungus to develop (leg number two of the disease stool).

 
Leave adequate space between your plants — If plants are planted too close together, then the air circulation around them is reduced. Combine reduced air circulation with wet plants, and you’ve created a playground for the fungi (e.g. the proper conditions for disease to develop).

 
Plant vegetable plants at the proper time and at the right soil pH — Vegetable crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, or beans grow grow best in warm summer weather. Blueberries grow best at a soil pH of 5.0. If you attempt to plant tomatoes, cucumbers, and beans in the early spring, or if you try to grow blueberries when the soil pH is greater than 5.0, they will perform poorly. Just as you feel stressed if the weather is too warm or cold, plants will also feel stressed if the environment around them is wrong. And just as we humans are more susceptible to getting sick when you’re under stress, a plant is, likewise, more susceptible to the ravages of disease when they are under stress.

 
So if you want to keep your fruit and vegetable crops healthy and disease-free, then follow the old stage saying and “break a leg”. Break all three if you can, and you’ll never again have to experience the heartbreak of disease destroying your plants and making a mockery out of all your garden efforts.

broken-stool

The Fleeting Joys of Spring

spring

So now I have sung you a little short song
I can no longer stay
God bless you all both great and small
And I wish you a happy May

― May Day Carol

 
The month of May is a prime time for experiencing all of the beauty and joy of spring. Spring flowers are at their peak, the weather is beautiful (not too hot or too cold), and every morning the air is filled with the melodic chirps of all manner of songbirds. And, of course, soil and air temperatures are just right to begin planting your garden — that is, if you haven’t started already with cool season crops in March and April.

 
There’s so much to enjoy and experience in the month of May. Go for a walk in the woods and see all of the emerging wildflowers. Migratory birds are passing through; you might see an Eastern bluebird or a hermit thrush. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the warble of the red-winged blackbird. At dusk, you can watch the elusive woodcock as the male does his mating dance. Butterflies and hummingbirds are emerging, and if you plant a garden of native plants, you’ll be seeing a lot of them, as they’ll be hanging around your yard.

 
But if you’re not careful, the month of May can slip through your fingers, leaving only regret at the hikes not taken and the sights unseen. So don’t let May’s joyful parade pass you by without experiencing the offerings of as many floats as possible.

How Sweet Is My Corn

Sweet Corn

 

Sweet corn. It just wouldn’t be summer without that roasted or boiled buttery sweet summer staple of a thousand picnics and family gatherings. But have you ever wondered what it is that makes sweet corn sweet, and how it differs from other kinds of corn?

 
Sweet corn is corn that is bred for sugary sweetness and harvested when the kernels are immature. As a result the interior of the kernel contains sugar instead of starch, giving the product a sweet taste. Hence, the name. But did you know, that even among sweet corn, there are different genotypes? Allow me to elaborate.

 
su or Sugary — This is the classic sweet corn. The kernels contain modest amounts of sugar in them which gives them a combination flavor of sugar and corn. When harvested, the sugar in su corn rapidly converts to starch, which decreases the sweetness. That’s why many sweet corn aficionados claim that the best way to cook sweet corn is to boil the water, run out into the garden, pick and shuck the corn, run back into the house, and toss it into the boiling water. This, they claim, gives the maximum amount of sweetness. Golden Bantam is an example of an su sweet corn.

 
se or Sugar Enhanced — se corn has higher levels of sugar in the kernel than su corn. su corn still rapidly converts to starch upon harvest, but it will stay sweet longer that se corn because of the elevated level of sugar. The kernel walls of se corn also are more tender than those of su corn, which further improves the eating quality. se varieties are also hybrids, so you cannot save the seeds for next year’s planting. Examples of se cultivars include Kandy Corn, Bodacious, and Silver Queen.

 
sh2, shrunken 2, or Supersweet — The amount of sugar in the endosperm of sh2 corn is even higher than that of su or se corn. The higher levels of sugar and lack of starch gives the seeds a wrinkled or shrunken appearance, hence the name. Conversion of sugar to starch is even slower than in su and se corn, so there’s a longer window between harvest and preparation. sh2 corn germinates poorly or not at all in cold wet soil. sh2 varieties must also be isolated from su and se corn; cross pollination with sh2 can ruin their flavor and quality. And like se corn, they are hybrids, so the seed cannot be saved for the following year’s planting. Examples of sh2 cultivars include Early Xtra-Sweet, Northern Xtra Sweet, and Illini Xtra Sweet.

 
So which variety of sweet corn is right for you? Once again, this goes back to the planning we discussed in my last blog post. Do you harvest your corn and cook it later? If so, then I recommend one of the se or sh2 varieties. If you believe in roasting or boiling your corn seconds after harvest, then try one of the su varieties.

 
Congratulations! You’ve just received several kernels of knowledge. I just hope I haven’t caused any corn-fusion.

On Your Mark; Get Set; Garden!

Oh my friends it’s springtime again
Buds are swelling on every limb
The peepers do call, small birds do sing
And my thoughts return to gardening

― Dillon Bustin, Almanac

 
Prime gardening season has officially begun! The time is now for starting potato tubers, sweet potato slips, asparagus crowns, and many other vegetables. And there is still time to direct seed lettuce, spinach, kale, mustard, kohlrabi, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. But you must act fast! The season of spring is a fleeting one, and the window of opportunity to plant these vegetables is closing fast!

 

How did your garden grow last year? If your yield of fruits and vegetables was below your expectations, then now would be a good time to test your soil to see if it’s deficient in nutrients or too high or too low in pH. Depending on the results, you may want to work in some compost and organic fertilizer to replace the nutrients that were depleted by last year’s crop. Remember — feed the soil and the soil will feed your plants.


Now would also be a good time to lay down some mulch. Mulch will warm up your soil sooner, conserve moisture during those hot dry summer days, and reduce the number of weeds growing in your garden. Then you can spend less time weeding and watering, and more time enjoying the fruits of your labor.

straw-mulch
For those of you who, like me, started your tomato seeds late last month or at the beginning of this month, by now, your seedlings are growing strong and healthy. If you are bound and determined to get tomatoes before your neighbors do, you can begin transplanting them into your garden, but you must protect them with a season extending device such as a bell cloche, cold frame, or Wall O’ Water. Tomatoes do not handle cold very well, and without protection, a surprise cold snap could kill your tomatoes or seriously impair their yield later in the season.


So carpe hortus (seize the garden), before this prime planting time slips through your fingers!