March 26, 2012

Early Spring

These little babies are right on time at our local farm store, but our spring seems to have sprung a little on the early side.  We've had more days in the 70's than anything else.  Are we getting too comfortable with it??  There is endless speculation around Iowa about whether or not we will get anymore freezing weather or snow.

We're on our normal course of indoor planting and seed ordering, but it's sure tempting to move ahead with the whole program when it's so lovely out!   These seeds came with our last order from Azure Standard. I've blogged about this company in the past and love the products they offer.  We've been customers for a number of years, but this will be our first try with their seeds.  From what I can tell, this seed line that they sell is a small home business - a bonus!

Our strawberry bed is happily growing up through the pine straw mulch.  Do we take off the mulch and risk a freeze?  I'm dreaming of strawberries on pancakes and strawberry jam this summer, so I'm feeling protective!

Our peach tree has bloomed as well.  Will these lovely flowers escape the frost?  Does this mean we'll get a good crop?  This little tree was a volunteer from an established tree, was first planted in our front yard, where the deer liked to terrorize it, and was transplanted to our fenced garden area in the fall of 2010.  My hubby pruned in to a V shape according to expert advice, and it seems pretty happy right now!

 Leaves have set on some of our blackberry vines, but who knows what will happen here.  Last year was such a disappointment after a promising start.  Seems we had a fungus problem. We're trying to contact the grower to get some insight and perhaps a refund for some of those that failed completely.  Maybe our fruit dreams will come true this year??

 We spent most of our Saturday at a gardening workshop at the  The Henry A. Wallace Country Life Center, near Orient, IA.  This is the second of these facilities, the other being in Des Moines and that location has a different focus.  It's a little difficult to describe just what this place is too!  Among other things it's an organic CSA farm which provides weekly produce boxes to 65 people for the 2012 season, and plans to provide 40 different kinds vegetables and fruits!  There are numerous programs and workshops offered here and there is a wonderful restaurant open part of the year that features what they grow.

The grounds include the restored birth home of  Henry A. Wallace and the newer building, which includes meeting space and the restaurant.

Here you can see part of the barn and the bones of the greenhouses.  There is a fascinating young woman, Sarah Costa, who heads up the agricultural operations at this center.  She is very knowledgeable, very enthusiastic, and works her buns off at a job she clearly loves.  Listening to her talk about their growing season and her preparations for the coming season was  very inspirational!

One of the playful things on the grounds is this giant checker board!  It's made of textured cement blocks. Such a fun idea!

 The workshop was packed, and included a number of Master Gardeners that were achieving their continuing education hours as well as enjoying a perfect spring day with fellow enthusiasts. The weather was all the talk here too, and several times we heard the warning that we should not be fooled by early warm days - as in don't be tempted to plant everything just yet!

We had a number of sessions, including this one with the head of the Master Gardener Program at ISU.  She presented an interesting but intimidating presentation about Quilted Gardens. You can see some pictures of these gardens at this site.  It's a wonderful idea, but even a room full of experienced gardeners were intimidated at the amount of work that would be involved!  Most people just want to get a good crop of tomatoes and have nice color in their flower beds!

This young woman is Chef Katie, new to the center and someone they are thrilled to have.  She did a wonderful presentation on edible flowers - how to make flower butters, flower simple syrups, and more.  She was also the chef for our lunch and it was one of the highlights of the day! The menu included roasted root vegetables with herbs and fresh pea shoots (pictured above), fruit salad perfumed with lemon balm, and fresh baked focaccia bread. For our sandwiches, she made several delicious spreads, including from-scratch mustard, using two kinds of seeds plus calendula flowers - really, really yummy!

The best part of the day was the fact that I got to spend it with these swell fellas - my Uncle Jim and my husband!  They are a couple of lovable characters!

March 22, 2012

Field Trip

Not long ago, we took a wonderful weekend trip to Kansas City.  We wanted a little adventure, but not too far away, and what a good pick it was!  Above you can see a bit of the really amazing architecture near the Country Club Plaza area of KC. According to a Wikipedia article, "The architecture of Kansas City, MS and the metro area includes major works by many of the world's most distinguished architects and firms...including Frank Lloyd Wright. Municipal Auditorium, the Kansas City Power and Light Building, and Jackson County Courthouse have been called, three of the nation's Art Deco treasures."

 Also in the Country Club Plaza area were numerous carriages for hire - including these "Cinderella" coaches!  Too funny.  I'm not sure I would have imagined these outside of Disney World. You can see a little more architectural detail here as well, and though I failed to photograph any, there were lovely fountains and statues everywhere along these streets.  This area had some very upscale retail stores, restaurants, a theater, and a number of outdoor entertainment spots.We enjoyed a long stroll and the window shopping only!

On our first evening we had to partake of some famous KC barbeque of course!  This was a much recommended restaurant, and we found that there is a fierce debate about BBQ in this city - no surprise.  While this was good, and a very nice atmosphere,we found we preferred the more rustic flavors at Oklahoma Joe's Barbeque.  This was a place that Anthony Bourdain chose as one of the 13 places to eat before you die - check this off our bucket list!  It was memorable and worth the 40 minute wait in line to get to the order station, then jockey for a table the minute someone stood up, and fight your way up to get another drink.  Yes, worth every savory little bite!

picture from Chez Elle website

And since finding recommended restaurants makes up a big part of our itinerary when we plan a trip, I wanted to share two more spots that stood out.  The first is Chez Elle, which prides itself on French crepes and coffee - rightly so!  It's another spot with a line and a challenge for a table.  You would do well to know what you're doing before you step up to order too.  We ordered one savory and one sweet crepe dish and shared them.  Yummy! 
picture from Yelp website
The second stand out was the Vietnam Cafe.  They have no website, just fabulous food.  This was by far the most crowded and crazy of all the places we ate.  But it was an experience worthy of any hassle.  And they're used to handling crowds with methods like taking your order while you stand at the door!  They hustle you to a table when it opens and I suppose you might feel they were being brusque if you weren't being a sport about it - ha!  It has a very small dining area, doesn't look like a place you would choose without knowing about it, and serves some of the most amazing food we've had in a long while. Go for the Beef Pho (soup), and the Vietnamese pancakes - ya, ya, ya!

  Museums made up a good deal of our entertainment while in KC.  There is a wealth of them and we just scratched the surface.  The first we visited was the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.  It was free admission - amazing!

There is a gorgeous view of the museum lawn and the city from the steps.  The grounds are dotted with sculpture both traditional and not so traditional...

 I researched a little but remain confused about the significance of all the "birdies"! There are four of these sculptures around the grounds and each one weighs 5500 pounds - whew!

The interior of this neoclassical museum is stunning.  

 Did I already mention that admission is free?  Incredible.

Among the many art displays is an Egyptian gallery.  We found this collection of Ushebtis really fascinating. Translated into "the one who answers", these were buried with the deceased to be servants in the afterlife. This wall was lined with these figures, which were from 6 to 12 inches high.

You may not think of knights in shining armor as art, but take a look at the close up below.

This Medieval armor originated in Milan around 1565.  These craftsmen were true artists, don't you think?!

This lovely view of KC was taken from the top of another amazing museum we visited - The National WWI Museum.  In the foreground is the Kansas City Union Station.  This will be on our list of places to explore when we return one of these days.

 This is the Liberty Memorial Monument, which sits in between two of the exhibit buildings on the upper area of the WWI museum site.  We took an elevator ride to the top and enjoyed beautiful views.  At night, this monument is lighted at the top and fog is produced to billow out, giving it the look of flames.  I took no pictures inside the main exhibit of this museum. Needless to say, it's a very sobering experience, but one not to be missed.  The sacrifices made by service men and women in this country can hardly be put into words, but the artifacts, pictures, and personal stories left their mark on us.  It seems so inadequate, but all that you can think when you leave here is, thank you. Thank you.

Kansas City, we'll be back!  More to see and more BBQ to compare!

March 17, 2012

Green for St. Patrick's Day!

Our book club read this charming book this month in honor of St. Patrick's Day.  It's the story of a young couple who moved to the small town of Kilmihil Parish, Ireland.  The book chronicles their lives as they nestle into this community - charming!

I'm now reading another book about Ireland on my Kindle Fire - which has a very green cover!

This book is about a storyteller in Ireland in 1951.  The 11% tag indicates that I've read that much of the book, and so far, it's quite good.

Our final nod to this holiday is cooking away in our crock-pot.  It smells heavenly!  Trader Joe's sells this traditional choice without the nitrates and nitrites added.  Much better choice in my opinion.

Almost overnight, things got very, very green around our house!  The jonquils had already begun to pop, but many more things have come to life.  It's so exciting to watch it all revive itself when it has looked so dead for months!

Our roses have canes that are greening up, and little leaves are popping out already. Last fall we tried a new method, which didn't involve cutting them back to just a couple of feet high.  For the most part it looks like they're fine all the way up the long canes.  Time will tell.

The Iris are pushing through.  I have a goal to cut more of them and get them inside for enjoyment this summer.

This is one of two Barberry bushes that I would have sworn were goners, but overnight they both sprouted leaves and more leaves!!  Nice to know that our bargain bushes purchased at the autumn nursery sales weren't a waste of time and money - yay!

And now for a picture of one of my all time favorites - my lilac bush burst into green buds overnight as well!  This bush has the most amazing flowers - which you see in the header of the blog. They too will be in a vase on the dining room table before you know it!

Happy St. Patrick's Day - enjoy the green!

March 12, 2012

Looking Back and Looking Forward

Mmmm...I can still taste this delicious rainbow chard from the last garden, which loves to be doused in balsamic vinegar, by the way.  We successfully grew this in our square foot plots and had enough to share, which is always a worthy goal for gardeners.  I bunched it together and took it to a church potluck that had a "Fall Harvest" theme.

And I had better explain this little bit of abundance since I previously said that our tomatoes were a bust last summer.  The big exception was cherry tomatoes, and we could barely keep up with them.  But as far as the lovely slicing/canning tomatoes that we count on, no go.  The weather was a factor, but the biggest issue was the fact that we were out of town so much last May.  Gardeners should really not leave in May - it's the crucial season for getting things off to a strong start!

 These happened at the end of the growing season of course.  We had fun giving some of them away too.  I love growing pumpkins because they just do their thing, and one day you go out and spy a flash of orange and get excited like a little kid! Then you start searching under more and more of the huge pumpkin leaves and discover treasure everywhere - love it!

Peppers were abundant in our garden too, which was odd because we knew a number of people who couldn't get their peppers to take off at all last summer.  You can amass all the education you can on gardening, and many things just remain a mystery.  Even many of our lecturers for our Master Gardening program, through ISU, attested to the same thing!

I made a new relish last fall in light of the pepper abundance. The recipe is from the good old Ball Blue Book, which has all the classic home canning recipes and instructions.  This is simply called Cucumber Relish, but has as many bell peppers as it does cucumbers. It's taste is a cross between sweet and sour and is fantastic!

The relish made a big enough batch that I had some to give as Christmas gifts. I topped the jars with Ball plastic caps (put on over the sealed lid), and then decorated them with buttons so that the jars could be used as a catch-all in the kitchen once the relish was gone. The tags are made from recycled Christmas cards and I like the look of common kitchen twine on these kinds of gifts too.

This was another kitchen gift for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  I did use our own carrots for this Carrot Cake jam. It's also full of pears, pineapple and spices - so good!  The recipe is from another Ball canning book that I'll feature soon.

Now for the looking forward part!  The beets pictured here on the left were generously shared with us by a friend last fall.  They are called Chioggia - aren't they gorgeous?!  Last night we were scanning the seeds at our local hardware store (yes we scope out seeds wherever we go!), and lo and behold there were these fantastic heirloom seeds.  Looking forward to harvesting our own, along with all the hopeful little seedlings that are popping up under the grow lights - stay tuned.

March 7, 2012

Last Summer's Garden Goodies

I'm going back over pictures from the 2011 garden produce and thought I'd post a few things that may inspire you in your gardening this year.  I think it sometimes takes a little mental pumping up to get us going in the spring when it's time to plan ahead for those lovely tomatoes and green beans.  Otherwise we end up with no seeds or seedlings because the garden centers and mail order companies are picked over!

 In the fall of 2010 we planted a number of different kinds of raspberries and blackberries.  Some are summer producers and some fall producers.  These berries pictured were part of a very small crop we got last summer, and we don't know quite what to expect this year, since there was a blight on some of the canes.  Our Master Gardener program gave us a little insight and we'll start treating the canes as soon as we see the first signs of life out there!  Learning, always learning.

Our asparagus patch was a little better this year, but again, this past fall we learned more about how to manage asparagus and encourage growth.  I'm not sure why growing this has been such a puzzle to us, but maybe we'll get it right now!  It's one of my favorite vegetables. One of the things we brought home from our trip to Maine was this blood orange flavored olive oil.  We drizzle the asparagus with this and some balsamic vinegar, and roast it in the oven at 450 degrees until it's crisp tender.  Fantastic!

This is one of the few pics I took of our completed garden last summer.  I blogged briefly about the rock we hauled into half of the garden, landscape fabric we laid, and the new square foot beds we installed.  It was a monumental project, but very satisfying.  We're considering putting down black plastic under the patch that grows pumpkins and some melons.  Now is the time to plan these kinds of garden tasks as well, since doing them in the July heat really stinks!

We harvested fantastic green beans and some very nice potatoes, though potatoes were not in the numbers we had hoped.  But we're not discouraged, and we'll plant them again this year for sure.  Four of our new square foot beds are double deep for the purpose of growing potatoes, carrots and anything else that needs a deep space. I revived an old-fashioned recipe that simply boils the beans, potatoes and some bacon together. There is really nothing fancier that could compete!

It was a banner basil year and we're still enjoying the pesto, which is in the freezer in these small containers.  It's just enough to top a pizza and a nice change from tomato sauce.

I'll stop here, but more to come.  Time to get revved up for gardening!