Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Season Later

I always try to be good to my future self.  I wash the dishes at night so that I won't have to deal with them in the morning.  I wash my clothes today so that I will have a clean work shirt on Saturday.  I plant and weed and water the garden so that I will have fresh greens over the next couple of months.  I save money so that I will not have financial woes, pay my bills on time so I will have good credit, and leave jobs as graciously as possible so that I will have good references.  Basically, I walk the line for this future self of mine.

The only problem with this system is that I never get to be the future self.  I work for her, I plan for her, and, most of all, I worry about her, but she is always a minute or a day or a lifetime ahead of me.  Every once in a while I have to take a break from the future self, to spend some time appreciating what the past self has done for the present self, or otherwise this future-oriented system gets too exhausting.  So, today, with one year ending and another year, with all its associated goals and plans and worries, about to begin, I'm pausing to reflect on what my past self built in the fall of 2010.

Here is the before picture, taken on the first day of fall:

Front yard on September 23, 2010

On the first day of fall, which still felt like the middle of summer, I went into the front yard with a shovel and a yard-waste bag and thought I would make a morning of it.  Two and a half weeks later, I was finally done turning that section of yard into a dirt patch.  I got a serious farmer's tan in those two weeks, with tan lines not only where my t-shirt sleeves and neck ended, but also unevenly across my face, with darker freckles on the right side of my face, the side that was usually oriented to the south as I dug up the yard, working from the sidewalk on the east toward the front porch on the west.  I had also gotten to know the grubs that live in the soil and made friends with the grub-eating birds that hang out on the power lines above the street.

Front yard on October 10, 2010

I know that once the yard was dug up, I was anxious to turn my dirt patch into a garden.  I wanted to plant!  Even so, I am amazed to look back and realize that I built three retaining walls in two days.  Apparently the late summer heat had gotten to my head.  Each wall was composed of 33 bricks, each of which weighed 22 pounds, and each of which I moved from the pallet at the store to a cart, then from the cart to the bed of Lee's truck, then from the truck to the wall in the front yard.  At the end of the second day of wall building, my back was sore and my uneven tan was deepened, but I felt hugely satisfied to see three level walls crossing my new garden space.  I finished preparing the garden by digging compost and peat moss into each of the beds.  Finally, I raked the amended soil into level beds, mulched the pathways between the beds, and went to find my seed packets. 

Front yard garden on October 14, 2010

I planted seeds on October 15, in the middle of Austin's fall-planting window for lettuces, spinach, kale, and other cold-loving greens.  Germination was quick – within a few days for the Brassica clan – and high yielding.  Within a week I had dense rows of seedlings from all but the slow parsley seeds.  Within two weeks, the seedlings were growing their second and third sets of leaves and, in doing so, taking on individual personalities.  At the same time, weeds began to germinate in the open spaces, and the neighborhood cats and dogs were loving the new green space. 

Front yard garden on November 1, 2010

With the intense first weeks of seedling-germination behind me, I was able to water less frequently and take time to pull the weeds from between the rows of greens seedlings, which were quickly growing into baby greens.  About a month after planting, I was harvesting baby greens for salads, enjoying the mix of baby spinach, kale, chard, beet greens, Asian greens, herbs, and lettuces.  The greens continued to grow quickly, graduating from packed to crowded to should have been thinned a long time ago in a matter of weeks.

Front yard garden on November 15, 2010

In mid-November, the work of gardening shifted from the garden to the kitchen, where I was spending hours trimming and washing greens to make into salads or cook into meals.  When the freeze-season began, I mulched between the rows of greens with leaves from the backyard, which further reduced my watering schedule.  Now, at the beginning of "winter," the garden is entering the quiet month of slower growth and periodic overnight freezes.  Hopefully in this slower time I can catch up on the work of harvesting, washing, and eating all those greens.

Here is the after picture, taken on the second day of winter:

Front yard garden on December 22, 2010

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Saag Saga

If the fall growing season was a race, then the mustards would surely win.  The mustards are always the first to germinate, the first to put on their first true set of leaves, and the first to claim root and shoot space in a crowded garden row.  I have found that if I plant a mesclun mix of salad greens, a mix of seeds that includes multiple types of lettuces, arugula, chard, beets, Asian greens, and a just a few mustard seeds in the mix for spiciness, I always end up with a row that is dominated by Mizuna, a particularly vigorous, feathery variety of mustard, and red-leaved mustard, both of which are varieties of Brassica juncea.  This season, wise to the genetic advantage of the B. juncea clan, I planted the mustards separately from the lettuces, beets, chards, kale, and bok choy.

The mustard-containing seed mix that I planted this year was a Pan-Pacific Stir-Fry Mix, which contained equal parts of Red Mustard, Mizspoona, Pac Choi, and Asian Red Kale.  Red Mustard (Brassica juncea) is actually a type of brown mustard, meaning that it produces brown seeds, that has purple-tinted leaves.  Mizspoona (also Brassica juncea) is a new variety on the greens market that is a cross between Mizuna, the vigoruous, feathery mustard that dominates mesclun mixes, and Tatsoi, a relative of bok choy that grows in a tight rosette of dark-green, spoon-shaped leaves.  Pac Choi (Brassica rapa) is a variety of bok choy, and Asian Red Kale (Brassica oleracea) looks a lot like Red Russian Kale.

Mizspoona must have inherited the vigor of its momma mustard, Mizuna, because it has won the battle for space in my stir-fry greens row.  I recently thinned that row and discovered a good mix of all four plants, but the biggest plants by far, and the ones that were shading out the others, were the Mizspoona.  And, once the row was thinned, I realized that, in thinning around the largest, most-vigorous plants, I had inadvertently turned my stir-fry row into a Mizspoona row.  Discouraging this plant is simply not an option.  Instead, I am going to have to learn how to cook with it.

Saag comes from the Hindi word sãg, which does not have an exact English equivalent, but means, approximately, green leafy vegetable.  Saag can refer to spinach, mustard, bathua (a type of greens grown in Punjab), fenugreek leaves, or it may refer to the gravy that is produced by simmering green leafy vegetables in ghee and spices.  Saag dishes originate from the state of Punjab in northern India, where brown mustard (Brassica juncea) is a staple crop grown for its leaves, seeds, and oils.  In the Punjabi region, mustard is planted in the fall, its leaves are harvested through the winter, and its seeds are harvested in the spring.  Because mustard plants grow quickly and are hardy to insects, temperature fluctuations, and under-watering, mustard is an important source of food for the villagers of the region.  Sarson ka saag, a traditional Punjabi dish, is a gravy prepared by cooking mustard greens in mustard oil.

In the west, the greens used to make saag dishes vary.  Some recipes call for half mustard and half spinach, or any combination of leafy greens, while many recipes simply use spinach.  While I enjoy the flavor of just-spinach dishes such as Palak Paneer (spinach and cheese curry) and Palak Aloo (spinach and potatoes), I think that the flavor of saag dishes in enhanced by spicy greens.  I made Saag Paneer (greens and cheese curry) with the combination of red kale, Mizspoona, mustard, and bok choy leaves thinned from my Asian stir-fry row, and the resulting dish was tangy, spicy, satisfying, and full of greens power.

Saag Paneer

2 cups fresh paneer
1 pound spicy greens (mustard, kale, and/or Asian greens)
1 pound mild greens (spinach, chard, and/or beet greens)
1/4 - 1/2 cup ghee
2 tablespoons cumin seeds
1 onion, coursely chopped
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
1 tablespoon turmeric
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup water
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/4 cup cream

Make the fresh paneer about six hours before cooking the rest of the dish, so that the paneer has time to be pressed.  Or buy fresh paneer cheese at an Indian grocery store.  Once the paneer is set, chop it into half-inch pieces.

Remove and compost any tough stems, yellowed leaves, or dead leaves from the greens.  If the leaves are large, remove the tough parts of the central vein and chop the leaves into large pieces.  Wash the greens thoroughly - I double soak (soak, drain water and dirt, soak again) greens harvested from my garden to get rid of all the soil, mulch, and bugs that inevitably end up in the harvest bowl - then use a salad spinner or towels to remove excess water from the greens.  At this point, after removing non-edible parts of the greens, there should be about two pounds of greens ready to be cooked.

Heat 1/4 cup of ghee in a large frying pan.  Fry the paneer pieces in the ghee, turning periodically, until the paneer begins to brown.  Be careful not to over-fry the paneer because it can get tough.  Set aside the fried pieces of paneer on a paper-towel-lined plate.  (Frying the paneer is optional.)

Toss the cumin seeds into the heated ghee that remains in the frying pan.  Cook the cumin seeds, stirring continuously, until they begin to brown.  Add the onion to the pan and cook, stirring periodically, over medium heat until the onion begins to soften, about five minutes.  Add the garlic and ginger and cook for a minute or two longer, stirring to prevent the garlic from sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Add the turmeric, salt, and 1/2 cup of water, and stir thoroughly.  (The intensely-colored turmeric paste will quickly stain plastic utensils, counter tops, and floors, as well as clothes, so be careful and have a rag ready to immediately clean up spatters.)  Begin adding the greens to the frying pan - as much as will fit - then cover with a lid to steam the greens.  As room becomes available in the pan, continue adding greens until all of the greens have been cooked down.  Add the other 1/2 cup (to cup) of water to the pan as needed to continue steaming the greens.

Transfer the contents of the frying pan into a food processor or blender.  If needed, do this in two or three batches so that the food processor is not overloaded.  Coursely grind the greens.

Heat the remaining 1/4 cup of ghee in the frying pan.  (This step can be skipped to reduce fat.)

Return the pureed greens mixture to the frying pan and stir to combine with the heated ghee.  Stir in the ground coriander, ground cumin, chili powder, and cayenne.  Cover the pan with a lid and simmer the greens mixture for 10 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Take care when removing the pan's lid and stirring, because the greens mixture may splatter and can burn.

Add the paneer pieces to the greens mixture and stir to distribute.  Simmer the mixture for another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Stir in the yogurt and cream (optional) and heat through.  Add salt to taste.

Serve hot over steamed basmati rice or with Indian breads such as naan or roti.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Leaf Fall

This fall I made a point of watching for the moment of leaf fall, because every year I seem to miss it.  One day it is bright and warm and the leaves are on the trees and, seemingly, the next day, the leaves are on the ground and I am wearing a jacket.  Despite my intentions, I feel like the same thing has happened again this year.  Once again, the trees are bare and I feel like I missed the process.  Once again, it feels like we skipped from summer to our version of winter.

In my neighborhood, the pecan trees along Boggy Creek represent the majority.  When the pecan trees drop their leaves, my perception shifts from the leaves are still on the trees to the leaves have fallen, no matter that many trees lag behind the precise and timely pecans, who always seem to drop their leaves in mass at the end of November.

Despite my shifted perceptions, though, the live oaks are still green, the junipers are flowering (thus beginning cedar-fever season), and the red oaks, known for their "deciduous but tardily so" habit, have yet to finish their fall color change from green to yellow, orange, red, or burgundy.  Cottonwood trees, common but scattered along Boggy Creek and its tributaries, still hold yellow leaves as well, and their late-season visibility, amongst so many bare-branched neighbors, has me wondering about the original scope of the Boggy Creek watershed, before all the development and flood control.  And the cedar elm in my backyard has been slowly dropping its leaves and samaras for weeks now, giving me plenty of time to adjust to the idea of the leaves falling.

In defense of my feeling that the leaves do indeed drop all at once, I have the evidence of the bald cypress trees at McKinney Falls.  In early November, Lee and I hiked on the Homestead Trail at the park, where the cedar elm woodland, though yellowed by the heat of the extended summer, was still covered in green leaves, and the only orange or red leaves that I saw along the trail were on a poison ivy vine.  Nearer to the falls, along Onion Creek, the bald cypress trees were just starting to turn orange.  The sun was so bright that it was hard to capture a good shot that day, but I am glad that I tried, because I have proof that on November 7th the cypress trees along Onion Creek were still fully covered in green, yellow, and orange needles.

By November 25, less than three weeks after our initial visit, Lee and I returned to McKinney Falls for more hiking.  When we started the loop around the park, it was hot and humid, in fact so humid that I wished I had disregarded my own advice and worn shorts instead of pants.  About halfway around the loop, as the trail turned back to the north, we walked into a cold front, and thus into a different season.  Cold, dry air replaced the humidity and unseasonable warmth so quickly that, within minutes of wishing I had worn shorts, I couldn't wait to get back to the car and to my jacket.  Later, wearing hoodies and hats, Lee and I explored the creek area between the upper and lower falls, where the cypress trees that had still been covered in needles a few weeks earlier were mostly bare.  Their rust-colored needles, now fallen, floated in Onion Creek.

So I guess it's not unreasonable to feel like I miss the leaf fall each year.  It happens very quickly and the wildly changing weather of our cool season amplifies the sense of abruptness.  One minute it is hot and humid, and the next minute it is cold and dry, making it only natural that I am shocked to find myself wearing warmer clothes and noticing that the leaves have fallen off the trees.  Luckily for the trees, it is day length, not temperature, that cues leaf fall, allowing them to quietly get on with the business of preparing for colder temperatures even while I am being fooled into forgetting what time of year it is.  And what a privilege it is, to forget about winter.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Greenbelt in December

The wildflowers of fall, now faded, frozen, and dried, have disappeared into the underbrush along the Greenbelt trail.  Their broken stems and stiff seed heads were barely distinct from the brown grasses and leafless shrubs lining the trail, except that I remembered the dense stands of bright yellow Golden-eye that filled every clearing in October and, in remembering the flowers, was able to find their dried stalks.  My attention did not linger with the dead wildflowers for long, though, because soon I found myself looking up as I walked, turning and gazing and staring across the treetops to the bright red leaves of the oak trees above.

I have to apologize to the oak trees for dismissing them.  A few weeks ago, when I set out to document what I thought was the peak of our fall-color season, I was disappointed to find that the most brightly-colored, stunning examples of fall foliage being displayed in east Austin were on naturalized Chinese tallow trees.  I couldn't help but admire their colors as the Chinese tallow trees in my neighborhood turned from multi-colored, yellow and red and burgundy, to deep scarlet in recent weeks, yet I was also saddened each time I realized that the beautiful ball of red in my neighbor's yard, or down the street, or on the horizon, was being produced by an invasive pest of a tree.  So it was a real treat to find myself staring upward into the bright red leaves of native oak trees.

Two species of red oak trees are native to the Austin area, Spanish Oak and Shumard Oak.  Shumard Oak (Quercus shumardii) grows throughout the southern United States, from Virginia to north Florida and west to Texas.  The Shumard Oak is at the east end of its range in Texas, and therefore is restricted to streamside or bottomland sites with deep, moist soils.  Shumard Oaks grow to be large (80 to 100 feet) trees that often have buttressing around the base of the trunk.  The leaves on Shumard Oak trees are large (up to 8 inches), with the pointy-lobed pattern characteristic of red oak trees, and turn yellow to scarlet in the fall.

The Spanish Oak (Quercus buckleyi), which is also called the Texas Oak, is endemic to north, central Texas and southern Oklahoma.  Once considered to be variety of the Shumard Oak, Spanish Oak is now recognized as a distinct species by ecologists.  The leaves on a Spanish Oak tree tend to be smaller (up to 6 inches), with narrower lobes than those on the Shumard Oak, and turn yellow to red in the fall.  While most oak trees prefer slightly acidic soils, the Spanish Oak is adapted to the alkaline soils of the Edwards Plateau, where it is often found growing on limestone ridges, slopes, or creek bottoms with live oak and juniper (aka cedar) trees.

Juvenile red oak tree in fall

The oak trees turning red along the Greenbelt this month are probably Spanish Oak trees, given their habitat (limestone slopes above the creek), their associates (Ashe Juniper, Cedar Elm, and Plateau Live Oak), and their smaller-tree-with-smaller-leaves appearance.  But I can't be sure whether I was admiring the red leaves of Spanish Oak or Shumard Oak trees for two reasons.  One is simply that red oaks are tricky to identify because they vary greatly in their leaf shape and size.  The second reason is that here, on the edge of the Edwards Plateau, where Spanish Oak is at the eastern edge of its range and Shumard Oak is at the western end of its range, trees of the two species hybridize (interbreed).  So the native red oak trees that we have in Austin are not necessarily either Spanish Oak or Shumard Oak but, more likely, are some combination of both.

Since this weekend's trip to the Greenbelt, I am noticing red oaks, displaying leaves of yellow, orange, red, scarlet, and brown, all around Austin.  I wish that I could give each tree a name, rather than simply thinking of it as a "red oak," which is rather vague, given how many species of red oak there are.  But in town, the problem of oak tree identification is further complicated by the fact that oak trees are frequently planted for their beauty, shade, or color.  Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra or Q. borealis) is widely planted in the United States and Europe for its beauty and wood.  Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea) and Pin Oak (Quercus palustris), two other northern species prized for their foliage, are also sold by nurseries, as are Black Oak (Quercus velutina), Water Oak (Quercus nigra), and Southern Red Oak (Quercus falcata), three southern species that have ranges into eastern Texas. 

In town, a red oak could be any number of species, or a hybrid of two of those species, and will have to simply be a Red Oak.  East of town, call a botanist and expect a lecture on the phenotypic plasticity within and between individuals and species of red oak trees.  West of town, though, if it wasn't planted by a human, then it is a Spanish Oak tree, a beautiful red oak that is unique to central Texas.  The Spanish Oaks have figured out how to grow in the rocky, limestone hills of central Texas, farther west than any of their east-coast, red-oak relatives and, in doing so, bring us native, red foliage in December. 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Week of Greens

I really should have thinned my greens weeks ago.  Yet I am amazed by the sheer quantity of fresh food that I am harvesting from my garden, simply in the process of thinning the overcrowded rows.  It's becoming increasingly difficult to encourage my future self to thin more promptly when I see how productive this season's procrastination has been.  Sure, the remaining plants, many of which have contorted lower stems that twist away from their roots, look a bit shell-shocked and droopy after I remove their less-vigorous neighbors, but they quickly re-anchor themselves and grow into their new space. Meanwhile their less vigorous neighbors, the many of them, are providing the raw materials for many meals.

This is my routine of the past few weeks: thin, trim, rinse, repeat.  At least every other day I find myself in the garden with the intention of picking some greens, maybe enough for a few salads, or maybe just enough to make a sandwich.  No matter my intention, I always end up with more greens than I meant to pick, which is where the trim-rinse-repeat cycle comes into play.  Luckily, having too many greens is a problem that is easily solved by cooking and eating.

For the fortunate gardeners, or overzealous farmer's market shoppers, who have realized that greens have taken over every mixing bowl, storage bag, and refrigerator drawer in the house, I offer a week's worth of solutions from my kitchen.   

Monday: Green Pizza

The greenest part of this pizza was the sauce, a cilantro and parsley pesto that I made from the thinnings of those two rows of baby herbs.  I topped the pizza with sautéed mushrooms and wilted Tat Soi greens, and a mix of feta and mozzarella cheeses.  This pizza could have been taken to the next level with a homemade crust, but, in the interest of time (spent thinning-trimming-rinsing-repeating), I used a store-bought crust.  Which didn't matter much to me because the cilantro pesto was the star of the show, reminding me with each bite that the cilantro season had just begun.  In the next few months, I look forward to perfecting cilantro pesto, parsley pesto, and cilantro-and-parsley pesto recipes.

Tuesday: Beet Greens Omelet

I love beet greens.  They are my favorite of all of the greens.  The beets themselves are also delicious but the plants rarely live long enough under my care to make large roots.  This year I've tried to plant enough beets, and enough other delicious greens, so that I can refrain from eating all of my beet plants before they make beets.  Beets can't grow thick roots, though, until their row is properly thinned.  Oh, what a chore to thin the beets.  The thinnings, cooked in olive oil and seasoned with salt, pepper, and nutritional yeast, are rich tasting and remind me of eggs.  Maybe that is why I also like to cook beet greens and sliced onion into eggs, frittata-style, creating an omelet to be filled with cheddar cheese and eaten with toast.

Wednesday: Mixed Greens Salad

The most obvious solution to the too-many-greens problem, and an especially tasty solution if the greens are young and tender, is to eat a few salads.  In a baby greens salad, spicy mustard leaves blend with chewy kale leaves, earthy chard leaves, and sweet lettuce leaves.  It's a combination that only lasts until the the kale, mustards, and Asian greens mature into adult plants, becoming too spicy and too leathery for eating raw.  By then, salads will be limited to lettuces, spinach, and the smaller of the beet and chard leaves.  So, now, while the leaves are still young, and the salad variety is at its peak, is the peak of the salad season.  I mix in alfalfa sprouts, carrot shavings, tomato slices, chopped celery, sliced olives, sliced bell pepper, cracked black pepper, and grated Parmesan cheese, before coating the whole lot of it with flax oil and Mother's Cashew-Tamari Dressing.

Thursday: Bok Choi Stir Fry

Lee gets credit for the stir fry.  He fried loads of minced garlic and ginger in sesame oil, then added sliced onion and bell pepper, then added, in batches, a whole bucketful of baby Bok Choy.  Lee earned boyfriend points for cooking a stir fry that was ready to eat when I got home from work, and we both earned health points for eating so many baby Bok Choi leaves.  In a video game, our health meters would be maxed out from a week of eating so many greens.  Too bad life is not so simple.

Friday: Shells and Cheddar with Tat Soi

Homemade is best, but sometimes, here in reality, I have thirty minutes to cook and eat and get my butt out the door.  In those moments, washed greens can be melted into just about anything to add some flavor, texture, and nutrition.  I have melted greens into ramen, rice, pasta, scrambled eggs, and soups.  Technically, the greens don't melt but actually wilt as they release water, but the effect is of melting, as a whole pile of greens disappears into an otherwise starchy meal.  One trusty need-to-eat-quickly solution is to cook a box of Shells and Cheddar and melt a bowlful of greens into the mix.  Dark green but mild-tasting spinach or Tat Soi leaves are especially good with the cheese sauce.

Saturday: Chard and Cheese Sandwich

One of my favorite ways to eat a few greens, and also the easiest, is to make a sandwich and add a handful of greens.  Large leaves work best because they can be layered across the bread, but an unruly mix of salad greens also tastes good.  For best results, layer the leaves onto the bread, then drop the "meat" (or cheese, etc.) of the sandwich onto the greens, weighing them down.  I am especially fond of chard leaves, sharp cheddar, and thinly sliced onion on wheat bread.  I have found that, packed the night before or morning of, a chard-and-cheese sandwich travels well and makes a satisfying lunch for work.

Sunday: Kale and Mushroom Lasagna 

I finished thinning the row of Lacinato Kale and picked a few Red Russian Kale plants from the packed row of stir-fry greens that still needs to be thinned.  The next step, of course, was to trim, rinse, and repeat.  I cooked a sliced onion in olive oil, added minced garlic, then wilted the greens into the mixture.  In a separate pan, I cooked a pound of sliced mushrooms until they had released their water and begun to brown.  I built the lasagna in four layers - two of ricotta and mushrooms and two of the kale-onion mixture and mozzarella/cheddar cheese - sandwiched between five layers of noodles and tomato sauce.  I sprinkled Parmesan cheese over the top of the dish.  The lasagna took a couple hours to make, baking time included, but will provide meals for Lee and I well into the upcoming week.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fall Color

I love the leaf colors on the Chinese tallow tree in the fall.  Bright red leaves with yellow edges, burgandy leaves with receding green edges, yellow leaves with red veins, and a few almost-orange leaves can be found on one tree in November.  The bright yellow highlights on many of the leaves look sponge-painted and, taken together with the bunches of white seeds held on some of the trees in the fall, give the trees an even more highlighted appearance.  In east Austin, the Chinese tallow tree is the clear winner of the fall foliage competition.

Chinese tallow leaves (Sapium sebiferum) in fall

The bad news about the Chinese tallow tree (Sapium sebiferum) is that it is non-native and invasive.  And it's not simply invasive as in occasionally escapes from cultivation, but invasive as in a real problem.  The Chinese tallow tree was imported into South Carolina in the 1700's, where it quickly naturalized and spread up the Atlantic Coast and across the Gulf Coast to Texas.  The invasive tree has also spread to California, where it is listed as a "red alert" pest plant.  In Florida, where the Chinese tallow tree clogs waterways and ditches, planting or moving the trees is prohibited.  Nonetheless, the tree is still available at nurseries throughout the southern United States, where it is sold as an ornamental and promoted for its fall foliage.

Chinese tallow tree (Sapium sebiferum) in fall

In Texas, Chinese tallow tree has taken over the coastal plains, replacing the grasses and wildflowers that once supported a diversity of insects and animals with single-species forests.  Almost a quarter (23%) of the trees in the Houston area are now Chinese tallow trees.  In the United States, the Chinese tallow tree is very fast growing, which contributes to its ability to take over pastures and disturbed areas.  Ecologists studying the tallow trees believe that trees are able to grow so quickly because they lack insect pests here in the US, and therefore do not have to manufacture insect-repelling compounds but can instead direct all of their energy into growth.  In Asia, where the Chinese tallow tree is native and has insect pests, the trees grow much more slowly.

Another non-native, invasive tree that contributes to the fall-color landscape is the Tree of Heaven, the colors of which can be seen along the shores of Ladybird Lake downtown or in vacant lots throughout town.  While the Tree of Heaven (Alianthus altissima) does not have leaves that turn colors, the female trees are covered in red-tinted samaras in the fall.  Samaras are flattened, aerodynamic fruits, like the flyers of maple trees, that carry the seeds away from the parent tree.  Huge clumps of reddish samaras, in contrast with the green foliage of the trees, create striking fall color.

Tree of Heaven (Alianthus altissima) with samaras

Unfortunately, each of those pretty samaras carries a seed for an invasive pest of a tree that, like the Chinese tallow tree, is fast-growing, soft-wooded, and does not feed or protect any of our native birds and butterflies.  I have always wished that the Tree of Heaven had a different, less positive sounding name.  In reading about the tree I learned that some people call it the "ghetto palm," which sounds like a perfect name to me.  I imagine that it would be much easier to cut down and poison, as is suggested on many native plant websites, a Ghetto Palm than do the same to a Tree of Heaven.

So where is the native display of Texas fall color?

One option is to travel to Lost Maples State Park, which protects a relic maple forest left from a cooler and/or wetter time.  Which points to the reason why we don't have a lot of fall color in the first place - aside from a few maples in a park, we don't have the right trees.  Fall color is produced by temperate, deciduous trees.  In central Texas we have a mix of semi-tropical trees (like mesquite and acacia), evergreen trees (like cedar and live oak), and temperate, deciduous trees (like cedar elm and pecan). 

Most of our temperate, deciduous trees turn yellow, not red, in the fall.  This is not because the conditions aren't right for red leaves here because, actually, our sunny fall days are perfect for red-leaf production.  The leaves of cedar elms, pecans, hackberries, and mulberries turn yellow because those trees don't have the genetic ability to make red leaves.  In fact, only about 10% of temperate trees do have the ability to make anthocyanins, or the red to purple pigments that are so prized in fall foliage.  New England, famous for its fall color, just happens to have a very high concentration (up to 70%) of trees that have the ability to make red leaves.

The leaves of temperate trees are green throughout the spring, summer, and, in Texas, much of the fall because the leaves are full of green-pigmented chloroplasts, which are busy capturing the energy of the sun to make sugar for the plant.  Auxiliary pigments that help in light capturing or protect the leaves from certain parts of light, such as yellow xanthophylls and orange carotenoids, are also present in the leaves throughout the season.  In the fall, shorter days or longer nights cue the tree to store sugar in its roots and to stop auxin production, which causes a layer of cork cells to form between each leaf and tree branch, so that the leaf no longer gets water and nutrients.  The chloroplasts in the leaf are broken down and, as the green pigment of the leaf disappears, the yellows, oranges, and browns of the auxiliary pigments become visible, producing fall leaf color.  In a few species of trees, such as maples and oaks, sunny fall days also stimulate the production of red to purple pigments, which, unlike the auxiliary pigments, are not present throughout the season.

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), a vine that grows throughout the eastern United States and is native to the streamside forests of east and central Texas, has leaves-of-five that turn deep red in the fall.  I found this example of striking, and native!, fall foliage in downtown Austin.

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) leaves in fall

Another native vine, poison ivy, has leaves-of-three that also turn yellow, orange, and red in the fall.  Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), though native, is invasive in the sense that it is a species that thrives in disturbed habitats.  According to urban legend, over-enthusiastic suburban housewives occasionally make holiday centerpieces out of the attractive fall-colored vines.  I imagine it's not a mistake that is made twice in any given neighborhood.

Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) on a pecan tree in fall

Finally, we do have a magnificent tree that the New Englanders can't claim that gives us four-season beauty - the Bald Cypress tree.  Unique among the conifers, Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) is not evergreen but drops its leaves each fall.  The feathery leaves turn yellow, or orange, or rust-colored before falling, and the different rates of the trees in turning color and dropping their leaves create variegated fall color along the rivers and streams of our area.

Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) in fall

Saturday, November 27, 2010

First Freeze

I grew up in western Oregon, land of clouds, cold rain, and Douglas firs.  For over a decade, I've lived in central Texas, land of heat, sun, and drought-tolerant shrubs.  Every week I talk to my parents and we compare the current conditions in our respective states.  For several months of the year I complain about the unending heat, while, for the other several months of the year, they complain about the unending rains.  In my mind, we live in opposite lands.

Yet when I look at a USDA Hardiness Zone map, we are merely one zone apart.  Austin, Texas is located in zone 8B, while Salem, Oregon is located in zone 7B.  The problem with the hardiness zone map is that it is created based on only one measure of climate - the average annual minimum temperature in an area.  In central Texas, despite our overall warm climate, we receive arctic fronts that drop the temperatures down to an uncharacteristic 15˚ to 20˚ F once or twice a year.  The opposite is true in western Oregon, where, despite the long months of near-freezing temperatures, the proximity of the ocean keeps the lowest temperature of the year from dropping below 5˚ to 10˚ F.

Recognizing that plants are stressed by heat as well as cold, the American Horticultural Society came up with the AHS Heat Zone map to categorize climate based on the average number of hot days a year, which are defined as days above 86˚ F.  On the heat zone map, central Texas is in zone 9, which experiences 121 to 150 hot days a year, while western Oregon is in zone 4, experiencing only 15 to 30 hot days in a year.  This contrast, of heat zone 9 versus heat zone 4, seems to characterize the differences between our climates much better than the hardiness zone map.

But, while heat may define the climate in Austin, the fact that it does freeze here can't be ignored.  The difference between cold and freezing is the difference between life and death for many plants.  So, every year, around the first of December, I begin worrying about my plants, scanning the 7-day forecasts for potential freeze nights.  This fall, freeze warnings in the midst of an otherwise warm November confused me, causing me to question my mental freeze timeline, which went something like, Freezes begin in December, become threatening around Christmas, get less severe after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and end sometime in March

For the most part, I was right on.  According to the data compiled by Dave's Garden, Austin is "at-risk" for frost between December 6 and February 17 each year, and is most likely to receive killing frosts between December 28 and January 23.  Our frost-free growing season extends from March 15 to November 14, giving us a full eight months, or 292 days a year, without frost.  (In contrast, Salem, Oregon, is "at-risk" for frost from October 24 to April 23, is likely to receive killing frosts from November 16 through March 23, and experiences only 184 safe-from-frost days a year.  Again, the hardiness zone map just doesn't say enough.)

I have noticed that my yard, which seems to be located in a milder microclimate than the Austin weather stations, only experiences a freeze when the official Austin temperature drops below 30˚ F, which only happens a few days a year.  In fact, my first four winters in this house were mild, with nothing but several mild freezing nights each year.  Nonetheless, I dutifully carried my motley assortment of potted plants up the stairs into the kitchen before each freeze, only to haul them back down the stairs a day or two later.  The winter before last I noticed that my curry plant was hosting termites in its heavy pot and declared that, next year, I wasn't going to haul the plants up the stairs.  My mom, who has an uncanny ability to catalog every wouldn't it be nice if I had ... statement that a relative makes, heard my declaration and sent me a pop-up greenhouse for my next birthday.

In any other year, the pop-up greenhouse would have been a perfect solution, but last year we actually experienced, even here in the warmth of town, temperatures as low as 20˚ F, which killed most of the plants in the picture above.  Luckily, in the spring a few volunteer curry plants resprouted from their roots to carry on the legacy of the momma curry plant.  And the greenhouse, I'm confident, will be quite useful in the gardening seasons to come.

Meanwhile, this year's frost season is approaching and I have the front-yard garden to consider.  For the most part, cool-season vegetables do fine with a light freeze.  Kale, spinach, and bok choy aren't harmed by a light freeze, while chard, beets, and lettuce may lose their outside leaves to the frost, but are able to grow back.  My garden is so packed with potential food at this point, though, that I hate the idea of losing any of the tasty leaves to an early frost.

I also count on the frost season to begin after leaf fall, which is currently in progress.  Once the leaves are on the ground, I can rake and pile them on the garden as mulch, which helps to keep the bases and roots of the plants from freezing, which in turn allows the plant to regrow if frost-bitten.

Last night's temperatures were predicted to be in the low- to mid-20's.  I found Plankets at the Home Depot in the 10' x 20' size, almost big enough to cover my whole garden.  The fabric was heavy and soft, and the large size made them easier to work with than narrow strips of row-cover fabric.  Using the wealth of bricks from this property and two Plankets, I covered the garden for its first freezing cold night.  In reality, I think it was only 32˚ F here last night, judging from the unprotected Cosmos plants that were just slightly frost damaged, but now I have a plan for the freezing nights to come, in the killing-frost month of late December through late January.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Whole Lotta Greens

Time or money? is the oldest question of all.  Ever since we as a species figured out how to domesticate the plants and animals that feed us, we've had to decide whether to spend our time producing what we need or to exchange our time for money so that we can buy what we need.  In the twenty-first century, in the developed world, we exchange our time for money for all the things that we need.  Even among the farmers, few are able to choose the other way, to choose time over money.

Yet, I want to choose time, or at least I want to feel like I have the option to choose time.  I don't like feeling like an indentured servant to the industrial-consumption machine.  I think that one of my motivations to garden, to grow my own food, is to practice choosing time.  The reality of it is not as simple as that, given that growing a garden also costs money.  But in spirit, if not in practice, growing a garden is a commitment of time.  I commit to preparing the garden, to planting the garden, and to caring for the garden, and the garden produces food that I can carry straight into the kitchen without paying a grocer, or distributor, or wholesaler, or farmer.  I get food in exchange for my time.

Food costs more that just time in the growing of it.  Cooking from scratch, using raw ingredients out of the garden, also takes time.  Time that I am accustomed to spending, in fact, often happy to spend.  But then there is the time required to get the food from the garden to the kitchen counter, ready to be sliced or dressed or sautéed or baked.  That is where I am finding myself spending a lot of time lately, as I thin and trim and wash the greens from my garden.

The greens in my front yard garden grew more quickly than I expected, with each row turning into a crowded hedge of baby plants desperately in need of thinning.  At first I put off thinning because the garden looked so good.  I loved the look of the fat, crowded rows of greens across the yard, and I didn't want to lose that fullness through thinning.  Once I began, the thinning process was slow going.  The stems of the over-sized baby greens were tightly packed together, so that the leaves were intertwined and stuck to each other as I tried to remove some, but not all, of the plants.  Each row required careful, patient time, and produced a huge bowl of greens.  The thinning process, which was originally a simple, single item on my to-do list, "thin greens and make salads," has turned into a weeks-long process.

Once the greens were harvested, the next step was to trim the leaves from the stems, or the stems from the roots, depending on the type of greens.  I discarded yellowed or brown leaves into the compost bowl along with the stems and roots and tossed the healthy leaves into the sink for washing.

Growing crowded and close to the ground, some of the leaves were quite muddy when they went into the sink.  Luckily the dirt dropped to the bottom of the sink as I sloshed the greens around in the cool water.  I pulled the greens out of the water into a colander, rinsed the dirt out of the sink, and refilled the sink with water.  Then I dropped the greens back into the sink for a second rinse, just to make sure all of the dirt was washed away.  After the second rinse, I dried the greens in a salad spinner.  Now the greens were ready for cooking, or salad making, or to be stored in the refrigerator for later use.

Sunday I spent a few hours trimming and washing cilantro and parsley thinnings, bok choy thinnings, and tatsoi thinnings.  As I stood in front of the kitchen sink, clipping and sloshing, I was painfully aware of time passing and of all the other things that I could have been doing with that time, including writing a blog entry.  The expensive boxes of washed, organic greens at the grocery store started seeming a lot less expensive, given the labor and oil involved in their production.  But, in the end, once I saw the volume of greens that I had washed and readied for eating, I was reminded that having too many greens is a good problem.  We will eat well this week.

Of course, the final, and most important, step of the process was the supervisor inspection.  Benji sniffed each bowl but took a special interest in the cilantro and parsley.  I've read that cats eat plants to cleanse their intestines, and I've also read that parsley is a cleansing herb.  So it should have been no surprise when she decided to eat a fresh, baby sprig of parsley.  At which point her inspection was rudely interrupted as I hauled her screaming self off the dining-room table.  I guess that, even if I was weary from time spent thinning, and trimming, and washing, baby greens, Benji was there with her excellent feline nose to remind me that fresh greens from the garden have a quality that can't be bought in a plastic box from across the country.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


When I made a small garden in the corner of the backyard, I told myself that it was experimental.  I didn't know if that space would receive enough light to support plants.  At the time, several weeks before I began the process of digging up and terracing part of the front yard to make a garden there, that backyard corner was the best potential garden spot that I had, and I was itching to use a pile of mulch that I had to build a garden.  So rather quickly, over just two humid summer mornings, the backyard garden was created.  And just as quickly, my expectations shifted from This is experimental to This is going to work.

Overall, it hasn't yet not worked.  The transplanted broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and collard plants established quickly and grew new sets of thick, dark-colored leaves.  The seeds that I planted germinated into dense rows of seedlings, the thinnings of which made delicious salads.  Soon I had neat rows of seedlings and a patchwork of established cabbage-family plants, each preparing to make a head of flowers, or leaves, or florets.  In the last few weeks, leaves from the cedar elm above have begun falling onto the garden below.  As the yellow and brown leaves accumulate, I can see the quiet, private backyard garden that I imagined coming into focus.

But, of the rows of seeds that I planted, only some of the seedlings made the transition from seedling to baby plant.  The baby chard plants happily grew ruffly fourth and fifth sets of leaves and the beet plants, though still small, responded to the low-light conditions by producing new leaves with deep-red undersides, which reflect light back into the leaf for photosynthesis.  The lettuces grew as well, quickly taking on the look of small, loose-leaf lettuce heads.  The cabbage-family seedlings, in contrast, stalled out at the seedling stage.  The arugula and bok choy rows shrank as the seedlings receiving the least light faded into the soil.  The Chinese kale seedlings simply stopped growing, standing tall with just two or three sets of leaves, waiting.

I might have been patient with the slow progress, writing it off as slow growth due to the lower temperatures or shorter days, except that the greens in the front yard, planted a few weeks later, make it very clear that lack of light is the culprit.  The front-yard greens, long grown past the need-thinning stage, are putting out new sets of leaves by the day.

Then came the bugs.  I'm not sure if they were caterpillars, or beetles, or some yet-unidentified creature from the compost, but something made a meal of those poor, struggling baby plants.  Last week, I noticed that, not only were the bok choy, arugula, and Chinese kale seedlings still frozen in time, not growing much, but they were also being devoured.  I decided that it was time to admit that part of my experiment didn't work.  I pulled the remaining bok choy, arugula, and Chinese kale seedlings and set aside the leaves that hadn't already been eaten by bugs for salad.

The bright side of one failed experiment is that I get to start another, which in the garden means planting more seeds.  I planted butterhead lettuce, my favorite type of lettuce, next to the established lettuces.  I also planted spinach, a monster variety, and mache, both of which are cold-loving greens that are known to germinate in cold temperatures.  I have never planted this late in the year before so, given how early we are having freeze warnings this year, I have begun yet another experiment.

Soon the rest of the leaves will fall from the trees that shade the backyard, allowing more light to reach the garden.  While I now know that the light will be strong enough to slowly grow greens - chard, beets, and lettuces - I still wonder if the broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage plants will receive enough light to make their heads.  Which means that my backyard garden, like all gardens, will continue to be an experiment.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Brushy Trash Holiday

Some people plan ahead for summer break by accumulating TripTiks from the AAA, or for Thanksgiving by building a book of recipes, or for Christmas by hiding gifts in the back of their closet.  I plan ahead for brushy trash collection by stacking every fallen branch, shrub trimming, or cut-down shrub from my yard in a pile by the back fence.  When the spring or fall Brushy Trash Day arrives, all I have to do is haul the branches from my backyard up to the sidewalk for collection.

I always have the biggest brushy trash pile in the neighborhood.  And I'm always extremely proud of my pile, savoring the view of it in the front yard for those couple of days before collection.  To me, a large brushy trash pile speaks of industry and thriftiness, or good use of the city's solid waste program, of which I am an adoring fan.  Living in an old, drafty, leaky house, I am less enamored of the sums that I pay each month for electric and water, but I have been impressed with the thoroughness of the solid-waste program since moving from an apartment to a house.  As a gardener I am especially appreciative of the weekly yard waste collection and, of course, the semiannual brushy trash collection.

Which may just make me a nerd, or reveal that I am a maniac with loppers and a Fat Max saw.  In my defense, I am genetically predisposed to chopping down shrubs and building huge brush piles, following in the tradition of my mom, whose summer brush pile dwarfs anything my yard could produce.  My parents live in the country, though, where they can burn their brush pile and create huge compost systems, while I try to carry out my agrarian urges here in a small city lot.  So I feel lucky that the City of Austin indulges my need to accumulate brushy trash.

Brushy trash collection was this week for my neighborhood.  On Sunday I dragged the accumulated branches of the summer and fall up to the street, revisiting yard projects of the past as I worked my way through the pile.  On the top of the pile were a few branches that had fallen from the trees in the backyard since the cold fronts started blowing through town.  Not far below were the remains of the multi-branched Japanese privet tree that I removed from the backyard.  As the crackly, dead privet leaves fell from the branches I remembered the cloudy, humid July day when I cut down that shrubby tree, exposing the back corner of the backyard to sunlight. 

The next bunch of branches, trimmings from the shrubs at the front of the house, a holly, a yew, and a few boxwood shrubs, were shorter and tangled, making them harder to carry to the growing pile at the sidewalk.  At the bottom of the pile, I dug through a dense pile of privet leaves to find trimmings from a chaste-tree shrub and branches that had fallen from a cedar elm tree in the backyard during a wind storm late last spring.  Those bottom branches of my backyard pile became the top branches of the new pile I created at the street, ready for pick-up.

The thing about having a brushy trash pile in the front yard is that it tempts me to add more.  By Tuesday afternoon, when collection had not yet happened on my street, I decided that it was time to remove the last remaining shrubs from the south side of the house, where I want to create a tomato garden.  I didn't feel bad cutting down the Chinese privet, which, like the Japanese privet that I removed from the backyard in July, is non-native, invasive, and, in my opinion, ugly.  I did feel guilty about taking down the small Texas persimmon tree growing next to the house.  But, if I wanted to plant tomatoes along that sunny wall, then all the shrubs had to go.  That is how my brushy trash pile got even taller.

As proud as I am of my large brushy trash piles, I always think that next year's pile will be smaller.  I have removed most of the shrubs that I don't like, or that have grown in unfortunate places, so I should have less brush to remove.  But I also know that the hackberry tree needs to be trimmed, as does the cedar elm by the back door, and winter ice storms or spring wind storms have a way of dropping branches when least expected.  So I am confident that, by the time of spring collection, I will once again have a pile of brushy trash to offer to the city.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Pickle Factory

Oh so innocently on my to-do list: harvest and pickle peppers.  With a few free hours, I skipped out to the garden with my scissors and a bowl, and I began picking peppers.  This was to be the end for my Serrano pepper plants.  They produced and produced through the summer, spicing our eggs and tacos and stir fries.  In early September, when pepper production began to outpace consumption, I picked the plants clean and pickled that harvest, making five half-pints of pickled peppers.  We've been enjoying the picked peppers since, and the fresh peppers that the plants kept making.  By the end of October, both of the plants were covered in peppers once again.  Early November brought freeze warnings and the realization that, if I wanted to plant cool-season vegetables in the small garden by the AC unit, I needed to harvest those super-productive pepper plants.

Super-productive, indeed.  I only planted two pepper plants this year, but both of those Serrano plants grew into tall shrubs with extensive root systems over the hot summer.  And quite by accident, by cleaning the plants of fruit just before the rains and cooler temperatures of September, I encouraged the plants to go super-production mode for the fall.  It ended up taking me over two hours to harvest the peppers from those two plants, filling my harvest bowl four times.

This is the point at which I could have done some calculations.  My harvest bowl holds four quarts, or one gallon.  Which means that I picked about four gallons of peppers.  Four gallons equals 32 pints equals 64 half pints, or about 5 cases of half-pint jars, given that the final volume of the pickled peppers will be somewhat less once the peppers are de-stemmed and tightly packed into jars.

But I did not do any calculations.  I was proud of my harvest and figured that I would need another case or two of half-pint jars and a quart of vinegar.  I also figured that I would need, roughly, an afternoon to complete the pickling project.

So yesterday afternoon, with supplies and ingredients gathered, I put Maná in the CD player and started popping the stems off peppers.  Except for a few stubborn receptacles (the caps that hold the stem on the pepper) that I had to pry off, most snapped off easily.  Soon I was working in a quick rhythm, picking up a pepper with one hand while snapping off the receptacle with the other hand, then placing the pepper into a bowl and receptacle/stem into the compost.  But, even with assembly-line efficiency, de-stemming each pepper took a couple of hours.

After de-stemming, I dropped the peppers into the sink for washing.  At this point I had handled each pepper two times - to harvest it and to de-stem it.  I still needed to handle each pepper individually one more time - to cut a slit in each pepper so that the pickling brine could be absorbed into the peppers.  Again, I worked with assembly-line efficiency, holding each pepper still with my left hand while cutting a slit in the pepper with a paring knife with my right hand.  Again, the process took over an hour.  But, finally, the tedium of handling each pepper was over.

While the brine heated and simmered in a saucepan, I peeled and halved garlic cloves.  Then came the fun part, setting up jars.  I lined up all of my clean half-pint jars on the counter and dropped halved garlic cloves, peppercorns, coriander seeds, rosemary leaves, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and caraway seeds into each of them.

Next, I packed peppers into the jars and realized that I did not have enough half-pint jars.  This is where things got a little nuts.  The brine was simmering and ready to use, the hot water bath was boiling, the entire kitchen counter was covered in half-pint jars, and I was holding another bowl full of peppers, wondering where to set it down.  I dug six pint-size jars out of the cupboard, washed them and filled them with spices and peppers, then repeated that process with another five, the last five, pint jars from the cupboard.  I processed half of the half-pints in the water bath while making another batch and a half of brine.  Altogether, I filled 33 half-pints and 11 pints with peppers.  By the time I was done, I had used up every garlic clove, peppercorn, coriander seed, bay leaf, and fresh canning jar lid in the house, and had long ago switched from apple cider to white vinegar.

I'm not sure where the line between project and undertaking is, but I am quite sure that last night, at the point when I was on my hands and knees, cleaning spilled brine and peppercorns off the kitchen floor, and the house smelled like a pickle factory, and the windows were steamed as the third batch of jars jangled in the boiling water bath, and Lee was poking his head into the kitchen wondering if it was safe to approach, that I had crossed that line.  But now that it is over, and the pantry is stocked with peppers to last us through the cool season, I feel a sense of satisfaction that must be written deep into my human genes, the comfort of knowing that I have put away some food for the days to come.  And while putting away food is no longer necessary, I like knowing what happens between the garden and the jar of pickles.

Pickled Serrano Peppers

It is helpful, as I found out the hard way, to calculate approximately how many jars you will be filling before you begin the pickling process.  This will allow you to calculate roughly how many quarts of vinegar, how many bulbs of garlic, etc, you need to have on hand.  One gallon of peppers will yield about 8 pint jars, or 16 half-pint jars, of pickles.  This will require about 8 cups of brine, which will require 4 cups (32 oz.) of vinegar.

Safety note about pickling recipes:  The ratios of the ingredients in the brine are important.  The brine recipe can be halved or doubled or tripled, as long as the ratios are maintained.  Using 5% vinegar, the ratio of vinegar to water should always be 1 to 1, with approximately 1 tablespoon of pickling salt and 1/2 to 1 tablespoon of sugar added for each cup of vinegar used.  The bay leaves in the brine and spices in each jar are for flavor, and can be adjusted or omitted based on taste preferences and/or what you have on hand.

1 gallon Serrano peppers

The Brine:
4 cups water
4 cups apple cider vinegar or white vinegar (5% acidity)
3 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons pickling or Kosher salt
4-5 bay leaves

Spices for each Half-Pint Jar:
1 medium garlic clove, peeled and halved
6-12 black peppercorns
4-8 coriander seeds
2 rosemary leaves
pinch of: mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and/or caraway seeds

Pick fresh peppers the day that you plan to pickle them, especially if you are pickling red Serrano peppers.  The red peppers spoil quickly.  Wash the peppers and discard any that are damaged or soft.

Remove the stem and receptacle (the green cap that holds the stem to the pepper) from each pepper.  This is optional - you can safely pickle peppers with their stems on - but I found it easy to slip the green cap off each pepper with my fingers, and I prefer to eat stemless peppers.

Thoroughly wash and dry your canning jars.  Add the garlic and spices to each jar.

Using a paring knife, make a small slash in each pepper for vinegar absorption.  Pack the peppers into the canning jars.

In a non-reactive saucepan, make the brine by combining the water, vinegar, sugar, salt, and bay leaves.  Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.

Pour the hot vinegar mixture over the peppers to cover completely.  Leave about 1/2 inch head space in each jar.  Wipe the rims of the jars clean and seal with clean rings and lids.

Process in a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes.  If you are new to canning, please educate yourself about water-bath canning before proceeding.  A jar lifter will be very helpful for this!

Store in a cool, dark place for a week before consuming.  Refrigerate after opening.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Revolving Annuals

I like the idea of a perennial garden - a productive garden that attracts birds, bees, butterflies, toads, and lizards; a garden where the soil is built from the surface of the mulch down, season after season, without being disturbed; a yard where vegetable-garden beds are surrounded by established, drought-hardy perennials that bloom throughout the year.  But the closest plants that I have to perennials, aside from the motley assortment of boring, hardy shrubs that came with the property, are the Cosmos flowers that reseed themselves year after year in the garden by the driveway.

If I like perennials so much, why don't I plant them?

First of all, I need a plan.  Perennials are long-term commitments and, while most plants can be transplanted, moving an established plant is always a risk, especially during heat or drought.  Every plant differs in shape and size, flowering season, water needs, growth pattern, and maintenance.  Aside from researching plants, I also need to figure out how I'm going to turn the rest of my front yard, and the adjoining strip of side yard, into a garden.  I need to measure where my property line is, figure out where I want to grow vegetables, and decide how to deal with the slope.  In the last few years, I simply haven't had the time to research plants and map out the yard and devise a plan for a full-yard garden.

Second, perennials are not just a commitment in terms of garden space and maintenance time, perennials are a long-term watering commitment.  In Austin, a watering commitment is a serious vow to take.  For the past few years, I have planted zinnias in the garden by the driveway.  This year the zinnias bloomed and grew, and bloomed and grew, all summer and fall, still pleasing the bees with flowers late into October.  Last year, when we had the hottest summer on record in the midst of a two-year drought, I realized in June that keeping the zinnias alive was simply going to take too much water, so I stopped watering, let them die, and pulled the plants.  I felt bad about letting the plants go, but, given the heat, it was a reasonable decision, and one that I know I can make each time I buy a cheap flat of annuals. 

The perennials that I would like to grow are drought-tolerant and, with some extra water, would be able to make it through brutal summers, but only once they are established.  In the spring, when a variety of perennial starter plants are available locally and by order, I always wonder: will this be a good year for planting, or will it be 105˚ in June?  Because, for the first summer, even the most drought-tolerant plants need favorable conditions and reliable water to establish themselves.

Third, I am indecisive.  Recently I decided that I wanted to buy two Bougainvillea plants to go on either side of the front walk.  At the store, I realized that, not only would the Bougainvillea plants grow to be much wider than the narrow spaces on either side of my front walk, the plants were also quite thorny, not a good trait for a plant growing into the front walk.  I abandoned the Bougainvillea idea and researched smaller, native flowering shrubs for the front walk.  I took a list of suitable red-, purple-, and blue-flowering plants to the nursery, where I walked up and down the perennials aisles reading tags and thinking.  I did this walking, and thinking, and staring-into-space routine for so long that a few different nursery employees tried to help me.

Eventually, I decided on sage plants and spent the next, well, eternity, debating color - true red or deep magenta?  I preferred the color of the red-flowered plants but the growth shape of the magenta-flowered plants.  I chose two red-flowered plants.  Then I looked at them and realized that their tiny flowers, though bright, and their tiny leaves, would get lost next to the dense shrubs at the front of the brick-colored house.  So I put the sage plants back and choose two plants of a yellow-flowered milkweed with a dense, upright growth habit.  Later I found out that my new milkweeds will freeze to the ground in a month or two, so I will, once again, have empty spaces on either side of the front walk until spring.

Finally, annuals are cheap, pretty, and easy.  I find it difficult to walk past a display of zinnias and impatiens in the spring, or pansies and snapdragons in the fall, without choosing colors.  Last week, I decided that, despite their heroic late-season blooming, the zinnias had to go to make way for the cool-season flowers, so that they could get established before it freezes.  I choose a variety of pansies and snapdragons to plant in the garden by the driveway and along the sidewalk edge of the front-yard garden.  As I planted this season's batch of revolving annuals, I told myself that next year, next spring, it's time for perennials.