What to Plant?

With March around the corner and having a garden to plot out, I thought it might be wise to decide what I should plant this year. While I have a rough idea of what I want to plant, I need to consider the space I have available, where the sun will be shining throughout the day, what I want to cook with possible vegetables, how much tending I want to do, how much space certain plants take up, and how much of a demand there is for certain vegetables in my family.

Here is a rough list of what I would like to plant:

Picadilo Collage Labeled(Source: Google Images)

There are many other things I want to plant but I know I won’t even have enough room for all of the plants listed above.

Today I measured out my garden space and to my surprise it was quite larger than I was expecting; 9’x24’! That’s three times the size of my garden last year! …What am I getting myself into? Just kidding, I am looking forward to it a lot and while I know this is probably going to be three times the work as last year (especially getting the garden set up for the first year) I know the return in food will be three times the size of last year, if not more. That’s one of the best parts about gardening; digging, sweating, lifting, leaning over, sweating, trimming, building, sweating, becoming frustrated with weeds, pests, and Jordan and then, receiving the fruits of your labor. It makes all that hard work worth it because you have sustained yourself with that effort. Plus you get to soak in the warm rays from the sun.

Here’s a visual of the chunk I will use.

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As you can see, with the big “N,” the yard is facing directly north so the sun will come up from the right side of the picture and move towards the left throughout the day. This space will have a lot of sun although the right side of the garden may be a good place for the plants that need shade (lettuce and Swiss chard).

Salsa is a large commodity in Jordan’s house so I know tomatoes will be a must. Actually, tomatoes in general are a staple in Jordan’s family. Last summer they went through three batches of salsa in two weeks. A batch was about two gallons and contained at least 15 tomatoes. I also want to make homemade spaghetti sauce sometime during the summer so I will need multiple tomato plants.

To experiment with canning some more, I want to pickle cucumbers and spicy green beans so they will remain on the list! The Achocha’s are just something Jordan and I are curious about because they have little spikes that look more soft than prickly on the vibrant green skin of the cucumber. Like those gooey toy balls you can get for a quarter at the bowling alley from a dispenser. I also have a weird thing with touching things (non-touch museums are NOT good for me) and I really want to see what they feel like…what would it feel like on my tongue?  Here’s a bigger picture of what they look like:

Achocha

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(Source)

Achochas are a mix between a cucumber and a pepper. When you cut them open they have black seeds similar to the size of bell pepper seeds, and they’re supposed to have a burst of water like cucumbers do. I’m imagining a rush of water tinged with tangy notes of sweet pepper.

Peppers and lettuce are also an obvious given because they’re another basic item my family uses a lot to make salads, add some flavor to eggs, hamburger/sandwich toppings, and the list goes on. Now what I am more concerned about are the vine-y and gourd-y plants like squash, watermelon, and cantaloupe. Because these aren’t as much as a desired item and take up a lot of space, I have decided I won’t grow these.

I am hesitant to grow corn because it is known to be a challenge to grow in smaller areas due to its pollination. For corn to grow to its potential, pollen must cover the silk where the ear of the corn will start to grow. Therefore, the more corn you plant, the more pollen your corn silk will have. When you only plant a few stalks, your corn won’t produce to its potential because of the lack of pollen. BUT Jordan is bound and determined to try corn again (I attempted last year and failed) so I will try again but this year I will plant more to aid in the pollination process. Another plant I am hesitant to grow is strawberries. This is because they don’t cultivate a lot the first year. It usually takes a few seasons for the plant to produce a good amount but I guess if you want strawberries, you have to start them sometime! So they have made the list as well.

After considering many factors of what to plant, here’s the final list:

  • Tomatoes
  • Lettuce
  • Sweet Corn
  • Jalapenos
  • Sugar Snap Peas
  • Swiss Chard
  • Green Onions
  • Habaneros
  • 5 Color Chinese Peppers
  • Green Beans
  • Cucumbers
  • Strawberries
  • Achochas
  • Sunflowers
  • Sweet Peppers
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Practice Canning: Homemade Strawberry Jam

A few weeks ago Jordan surprised me with some canning supplies as we’ve decided it would be really smart to can the goods we don’t use from the garden this summer. Along with the supplies, he got me the Ball Complete Book of Home Preservation which is a great book for beginning and experienced canners. As a beginner, I found it helpful because it contains extra information about how the cans seal, the difference between pressure and water bath canning, what types of food need to be pressure canned rather than water bathed, and a lot more.

Today I decided to practice my canning skills and can some homemade strawberry jam. It was quite an experience. Since it’s only February, we had to buy the fruit we needed from the store because it’s really not the right season for any fresh produce here. I am eager to use my canning stuff! Plus, by making this jam at home, I know everything that is in it. Canning is a very good skill to have to be self-sustaining because you prolong the shelf life of what you have grown from your garden.

For this process, I made an investment in a water bath canner. It’s 21.5 quarts, comes with a rack and the best part, it’s made in the United States so I am supporting the country I live in (this is something that is important to me, to support the country you live in, wherever it may be!). Also, because it has steel in it, this should last me a long time (if not forever).

So here was how it went. Any readers who see things they would have done differently, or have any secret ingredients to add, please share!

As I cut the strawberries, Jordan cut crisp apples and a lemon, and we put them all in a large sauce pan with water and brought to a boil for 20 minutes. It was amazing how the quickly the fruits cooked down and expelled a sweet, citrusy aroma. Your kitchen will smell wonderful while making this.

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At this point I had already made a mistake by adding the strawberries. I wasn’t supposed to do that yet! Basically you’re supposed to make an apple sauce for the base but I decided that strawberry applesauce would make it be even better! (Plus, luckily I had extra strawberries to add at the appropriate time.)

Next I put the mixture into a sieve and mashed the fruit through the tiny holes to make the strawberry applesauce. (This can be tiring. I was glad to have Jordan when my little arms couldn’t hold the sieve up any more.)

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Then, you take about 3 cups of the applesauce, the halved strawberries, and the HUGE amount of sugar and put it back into the cleaned sauce pan to boil for another 20 minutes.

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Put the hot jam into your jars, which should be sweltering (watch your hands!) and sterilized from sitting in the simmering water in the canner. Wipe rim and jar of excess jam, leave ¼ inch headspace. Place cap (which also should be hot and sterilized by sitting in simmering water) on jar and screw your band on so no water will get into your jam. This part, ladies and gentleman, was not graceful at all. Imagine 5’2” me and 6’3” Jordan within inches of each other, arms tangled, wielding scalding jars out of boiling water, pouring hot jam, attempting to wipe the jars clean without burning fingers, all the while doing so quickly to keep the jam from cooling. Yeah, there was a big mess and some minor burns to the fingers.

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After that fiasco, boil in canner for 10 minutes and then take the lid off the canner and let cool for 5 minutes.

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After the 5 minutes of cooling, take out each can and place somewhere where they won’t be bothered for 24 hours.

The best part was, because I messed up, I had extra strawberry applesauce to eat!

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We’ll see how my mess-up affected the taste of the jam though. Hopefully it won’t! It certainly was sticky like jam because the pans were really hard to clean. Next time I will have a hot bath of soapy water to put the pots in pronto so the jam doesn’t have time to cool and jell.

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We’ll see in 24 hours how it tastes!

UPDATE:

The jam was successful! After poking the tops of the lids every time I passed by the cans to see if they sealed, I finally got to open one. It tasted like the sun warming your skin on a summer morning on the back deck. Next time I may actually reduce the amount of sugar because it is awfully sweet. The chunks of strawberries are a nice change in consistency within the jam and I am glad I made the mistake of adding the strawberries too soon because otherwise there would have been too many strawberry chunks in the jam for my liking. Oh, and I would recommend not poking the lids as I said I did. The instructions said this could interfere with the sealing process but I was too curious.

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Free Seeds and Some Snow

This weekend was the beginning of my new garden. On Saturday, as the big, wet snowflakes came drizzling down I went to a seed sharing event at a local library. There were four other locations that day around town doing the same. I had never been to a seed exchange and was informed about it through my boyfriend’s mom who had read it in the paper. As my boyfriend (Jordan) and I walked in, we weren’t sure what to bring or expect.

“Do we have to bring seeds to get other types of seeds? Will they cost money? I bet they’ll only take cash. We needed to bring envelopes?? Crap, what do you have to put the seeds in? Why are there so many old people here?”

It turned out they did provide envelopes for the first-timers (phew, I was not wanting to somehow construct the three receipts Jordan had crumpled up in his pocket into a make-shift envelop for all the seeds we were going to get). As we walked around I took all the seeds we want to plant (for FREE) and put them in the little envelopes as Jordan scribbled what each seed was and information about it. I did feel bad for not bringing any seeds of my own to contribute, but that will be a goal for next year. We were given some worm castings (worm poop) for natural fertilizer and a lot of information about joining a food cooperative.

For those of you who may not know, a food cooperative is a group of producers and consumers who rely on each other to buy and sell fresh and homegrown goods. This piqued my interest because people who cannot ideally grow their own food can still get farm fresh produce this way. Another benefit is buying meat in addition to produce from local farmers. The particular group I got information from was the Nebraska Food Cooperative and after researching a little more on their site, I learned that not only are you getting locally grown food, but you are also able to see how the producer is growing their foods (pesticides vs no pesticides, fertilizers vs no fertilizers, organic vs non organic, etc.) and you can personally meet the farmer from which your food is coming. SO much more knowledge to where your food really comes from.

This was our bounty of seeds:

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While I’m only going to plant vegetables in my garden, I grabbed a few flowers packets for Jordan’s mom to plant in the front yard. The sunflower seeds I grabbed are an exception though. I want to experiment with them but I haven’t decided if I’m going to plant them this year or not because they are so large and I don’t want to intrude too much in Jordan’s parent’s yard. But I do want to plant them eventually to use the seeds; and of course because they’re pretty. For all you sunflower growers, is the sunflower seed harvesting process difficult?

There were only two vegetables we didn’t find at the seed exchange that we are going to buy online which are jalapeños and achocha cucumbers. For more information on achochas, also known as a New England cucumber, watch this video from An American Homestead.

Overall, this was an exciting event for me. It was a chance to see fellow gardeners come together in the community and provide seeds, other recyclable materials, and support to people wanting to plant.  Another great opportunity from seed exchanges is finding heirloom seeds that are not genetically modified and have been being used for years. We tried our best to get all the heirloom and organic seeds we could but came back with a few different packets of non-organic seeds which were too hard for me to pass up being free and all.

Now this snow needs to melt so I can start to plant my new seeds!