Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Inspiration from the Flower Show

Odd as it may sound, I've never been to the Philadelphia Flower Show before this year. I used to think it was something that was enjoyed by the elderly, something along the lines of bridge or wearing pastel-colored dress suits.

But, as it turns out, the Flower Show is for everyone. It's especially for people who like gardening. There was a bit of bourgeois feel to it, especially over in the vendor marketplace, where you could buy bonsai, orchids, bonsais, orchids and decorative flags. There were some other things for sale, but nothing that stood out to me as a gardener. Along with the bourgeois, there was also a bit of let's make pretty things/while respecting the earth/look at these native plants feel to things.

The theme this year was England and the main display featured a mock up of Big Ben. The theme was also seen in a cute Sherlock Holmes inspired exhibit, which had you solve the case of the invasive species or something. There were a lot of flowers on display that are pretty common here, especially right now, like tulips, daffodils and other bulbs.

The exhibit that got my attention was called "Before the Invasion" and was created by the EPA. It featured plants that are native to Pennsylvania and that were here before William Penn and the British "invaded" the area. Plants in the exhibit included a few varieties of rhododendron/azaleas, creeping phlox, and sedge.

Last year, I inherited a garden from a couple who retired and moved across the country. It's at 4th and Walnut street and is part of the National Parks service. Although I'm just a volunteer, I have pretty much free reign over what goes in the garden. There are some gaps in it right now, so my thinking is to fill them in with native species. So, thanks, Flower Show, for the inspiration.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Gardentime 2013: Getting Started

Depending on who you ask, Philly has just a few weeks to go before the last frost date. There's about a 50 percent chance of no more frost after April 6 and by April 17, we'll be pretty much in the clear. That means, it's more than time to start planting cold weather veggies, and if you want to start plants like peppers and tomatoes from seed, you're a little late, but you maybe could still do it. I'm an optimistic gardener, so if you want to give it a try, go for it.

My plan originally was to get the peas in the ground a week or two ago, but I ended up putting things off until this weekend, which was probably for the best because there was some snow on Friday. I got the peas, kale and carrots in the containers today. These three plants are all buddies, so I was able to plant them together in the same containers, to add some visual interest to things once they start growing.

Ah, the lovely site of chicken wire, an absolute must when you have a feral cat colony that likes to hang out in your backyard. The bigger pot on the right has carrots and kale planted in it while the blue pot on the left has kale and peas. The plan is to use the peas in the blue for pea shoots, so they won't get to be full size and I hope, won't get in the way of the kale. There's another big pot full of just pea seeds. I've also planted a window box with kale, which I plan on using for baby kale.

As I did last year, I planted Tom Thumb peas. Tom Thumb is a dwarf variety and ideal for containers. The plants max out around 8 or 10 inches and don't need staking. Of the different peas I've grown, they're my favorite.

This is my first time growing kale. I went with Lacinato kale, or dinosaur kale, which I've only recently tried. For some reason, I had this attachment to curly kale, even though it's much easier to work with Lacinato kale when cooking and it also looks a lot cooler. The idea is to grow a bunch of baby kale plants and one or two full-sized ones. Baby kale can do well in shallow pots and in cramped quarters, but big kale needs a deeper pot and about 15 to 24 inches of space.

I'm growing Atlas carrot this year, which a short carrot similar to the variety I grew last year. I was pretty happy with the carrots last year, so I can only hope that this year's crop does as well. This year's variety comes from Johnny's Selected Seeds, while the peas and kale are from Seed Saver's Exchange.

In hey, you survived the winter news, the chives have started to come back already. I wasn't sure what to expect from them, as I cut them down to the soil at the end of the season last year, then read that I was supposed to leave the stems over the winter. Oops, but that doesn't matter in the end, because here they are.

I got a mountain mint plant from Greensgrow Farms two seasons ago. The plant was very, very productive over the past two years, even confined to a pot and left outside for two winters. Today, I decided it was time to give the plant a new lease on life, as it was starting to choke itself out in the pot. I divided it, and the tiny plant above is one of the divisions. It looks fine for now, but only time will tell if I accidentally killed it.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

E-Reading Scripts

One of the joys of being a dramaturg is the opportunity to read a lot of plays. Some of the plays are ones that you've seen produced or would like to, some are submissions to theaters or festivals and others are plays that a playwright has asked for your feedback on.

One of the downsides of all those plays is finding a way to read them. In the past, playwrights would send a paper copy of the play to a theater, but now that many submissions are via email, the onus is on the person reading the play to figure out a way to read it.

I've always been the type to print out the script and read it that way. There's a weird disconnect when the play stays on a computer screen. It's hard to get into the play, since you're straining your eyes to look at it. But, when you have to print out 40+ scripts over the course of a few months, the bill can get pretty pricey, not to mention all the paper and ink you're using, all the trees that need to be cut down, etc.

Last year, my solution to the massive amounts of paper issue was to get a Kindle. I didn't get the Fire version, just the regular old Kindle, with a keyboard.

There are definitely pluses to using a Kindle to read plays. It's really pretty easy to email yourself the scripts. If you're getting plays emailed to yourself already, all you need to do is forward them on to your Kindle.com email. You set who can send you emails at your Kindle, so you don't have to worry about getting a spam email that will destroy your e-reader. The machine handles both .doc and .pdf files, though mine has crashed twice when reading a .pdf.

Since I have the keyboard version, I can make notes on the play as I read, just as I would with a paper script. I can also highlight text or dialogue that stands out to me as I read.

Despite the ease of use, reduction in ink and paper costs, and the note taking, I'm not sure I'm sold on the e-reader, especially when it comes to reading plays. After working my way through over 40 scripts this fall, I found it more difficult to write responses and reports after reading on the Kindle. One of the joys of reading an unpublished play is the ability to flip back and forth so easily through the stack of paper. It's easy to find what you're looking for or briefly go back to scene you want to examine again. Plus, there's something about holding the play as you read it that makes it sink in better, I think.

It's really hard to navigate the play on a Kindle, unless you take copious notes and notate every single instance you think you might want to look at again. You can't search the text as you can on a word processor. You can't search by page number on .docs.

I'm going to keep using my Kindle for reading plays, since it's much more convenient and cheaper, but I think I'll always prefer the physical copy of a script over it's e-version.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Gardentime 2012: Pickled Peppers

October has arrived. Although it's still been on the warm side, things have begun to get a little chilly for my jalapeño and Bulgarian Carrot Hot Pepper plants. Today, I picked the last of the peppers from the plants, as they are already beginning to show signs that they don't enjoy the colder nights.

The final pepper harvest wasn't terribly impressive - a total of 12 peppers. I think this overall this year I got about 30 peppers and that's a large outside estimate. 30 isn't a large amount compared to past years, when I was swimming in peppers by the end of the season.

Last year, I simply tossed the remaining peppers into plastic freezer bags whole and froze them. When I needed a pepper throughout the winter and spring, I'd just pull one or two out of the freezer and use them. Frozen peppers aren't good for eating raw, but they're perfect for tossing into a pot of chili or into a stock.

I wanted to get a bit more creative with preservation this year, so I decided to quick pickle half of the harvest. I left the Bulgarian Carrots alone, choosing to pickle the jalapeños only.

I never got on the canning bandwagon, for several reasons. Mostly, I don't want to buy a big canning pot or any of the equipment. So I went the quick refrigerator pickle route. I brought 3/4 cup of vinegar to a simmer on the stove, with 2 teaspoons of salt and 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar. I went with sliced peppers, so that I can use them on nachos and whatnot. The jalapeños went into a jar and the simmering vinegar went over top. The peppers and vinegar are cooling now, then they will go in the refrigerator and "pickle" for a few days (or a week. Or two weeks.)

There seemed to be a lot variance on the web when it came to how long the peppers will last in the fridge. A month seems to be the safe bet, but there are people who say they will keep for longer. I think the longer the peppers sit in the salty vinegar, the mushier they will get, so it might be more of an issue of quality than safety. But seriously, when it comes to food and safety, don't take it from me. Listen to the USDA and all those people who actually know the food science behind it all.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Gardentime 2012: Seed Saving

I got a lime basil plant for free when I ordered my peppers and other plants from Lazy Ox Farm. At the start of summer, I used the lime basil to make sun tea quite frequently. But as the season went on, the plant bolted pretty early and I kinda stopped tending to it, aside from watering it regularly.

The other day, I noticed many tiny little seedlings sprouting up around the established plant in the container. These weren't weeds, they were baby basils. The plant had not only gone to seed, it had self-seeded.

That's when I got the obvious light bulb. I could save the seeds (the ones that hadn't fallen to the ground) for next season. And, once the sweet basil was ready, I could do the same with that.

Saving basil seeds is very easy. That plant wants to put out a flower. Most gardeners pick off the flowers, which gets tiring, especially if there is a lot of basil. Instead of picking the flowers off, let them be. They're pretty and they attract bees. Keep in mind that there's a give and take. Once you let the basil flower, the leaves lose flavor. If there's plenty of time left in the season, continue the battle against the flowers. But once fall rolls around, it's time for saving seed.

After a length of time, the small petals will fall off and the flower spike will turn brown and dry out. It won't be pretty any more, but it will finally be useful to you. Trim the spikes, then spread them on a paper towel or paper plate. Let them sit for a few days or a week. To remove the mature seeds, shake the spikes or even rub them. A messier option is to put the spikes in a paper bag and give it a good shake. The seeds will collect in the bottom of the bag, but you'll also have to deal with a lot of chaff.

Basil seeds that have reached maturity are tiny and black. Store them in an envelope for the winter, then plant next spring.

One quick note about cross-pollination. Basil does cross-pollinate, and I don't have the scientific data to give percentages or whatever. But if you grew multiple varieties, keep in mind that there's a risk for cross-pollination and unusual basil plants the next year.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Gardentime 2012: Hello, Fall

I spent nearly the entire day in the garden, getting it ready for fall. The entire day wasn't meant to be devoted to gardening, but once I dived in and got going, time flew by and the work piled up. The day's work involved harvesting herbs to be dried, frozen or turned into pesto. It also involved cutting the flowers/seed pods off of the lime basil in an attempt to save seeds. In hopes of getting some more veggies before the frost hits, I planted a few cold-weather crops, including peas.

The parsley plant has done pretty well this summer. I don't know why I was hesitant to grow it for so long. As far as herbs go, it was almost no work at all. I'd trim it a few times to use the leaves and stems in cooking, but that was the extent of my efforts aside from watering. It didn't have any pests or disease troubles.

Parsley has long had a connection to death, which stems from both myth and botany. I found this fun article that discussed how parsley was considered the herb of death by the ancient Greeks. Apparently, they believed that parsley first grew in the blood of Archemorus, which means "forerunner of death." From a botanical standpoint, the seed of parsley contains furamocoumarins, which prevent weeds from growing. Unfortunately, those compounds also sometimes keep the plants from germinating too. Furamocoumarins might also keep pests away from parsley.

My goal is to over-winter the parsley plant by tucking its pot in a corner of the backyard, near the house, where it is warmest. It's a biennial plant, so it should return next year for a spell. My hope is that I can trick it into producing leaves for as long as possible by trimming away the flower stem. We'll see. For now, I've cut down the leaves and have tossed them whole, but washed and dried, in the freezer. Freezing parsley means I can use it in stocks and other cooked recipes throughout the winter. The frozen parsley probably won't be suitable for use raw or as a garnish.

At the start of the growing season, I got obsessed with the idea of growing citrus scented and flavored herbs. I ended up with lemon thyme, lime basil and lemon verbena in the garden. My original thought was to grow lemon balm, but I wasn't impressed with the lemon balm plants on offer. Then, I found lemon verbena online.

The plant is native to Chile and Argentina and is a tender perennial, meaning it probably won't survive a winter outside in zone 7b. My plan is to bring it inside for the cold months. The plant has narrow, pointy leaves that are slightly sticky and smell sweetly of lemon. When brewed in sun tea, it has a light lemon flavor that's a very herbal or green tasting.

I harvested several stems of the plant today, and have hung them up to dry in a dark spare room. They've been hanging for only a few hours so far and the leaves are already drying out. I figure they will hang there for a few more days, then I will store them in a jar and use them to make tea or to flavor scones and pastries. I've also got a few sprigs of sage drying there on the left, just for the fun of it.

The summer was a rough one and I'm reluctantly glad that fall has arrived. Let's hope the garden keeps on going until the frost hits in late November/early December.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Gardentime 2012: Accepting Failure

That above is one of the saddest looking tomato plants ever. It also happens to be the plant growing (or not) in my garden. It hasn't set any fruit and the leaves are starting to curl up and wither. It also may have been the victim of an over zealous pruner early on.

The are plenty of reasons why the tomato isn't making tomatoes. For one thing, it's an heirloom (Abraham Lincoln). While heirlooms usually make tastier fruits, they are also a lot more finicky. For another thing, the weather has been a bitch this summer. We all think that tomatoes love the heat, but even they have their limits. And days and days of temperatures over 95 degrees make them throw a mini temper tantrum and refuse to make fruit.

When I first started gardening, worry about crop failure kept me up at night. I would lie in bed, concerned that my pepper plant had only produced a single pepper or worrying that it would just die overnight. Over the past few years, I've mellowed out a bit. Some crops didn't do as well as I had hoped (for example, the Brussels sprouts that didn't grow at all, then got eaten by a cabbage worm), others were so amazingly productive I still have vestiges of them dried or in the freezer.

The stakes are rather low in my backyard garden. I don't need those tomatoes to live. If the plant did decide to produce fruit, I'd probably save a few dollars, but the impact on my life as a whole would be rather low. If the plant continues on as it is, I'm out $3 and the chance to grow something more productive.

It's a failure but it doesn't compare to the failure of say, entire swathes of corn in the midwest or other areas. The low stakes of it all makes it a lot easier to accept. It also makes me wonder about failure in life in general. Is there ever something that is so critical to survival that I couldn't bounce back from if it all didn't work out in the end?