Archives for posts with tag: gardening

Confession: We have been cucumber failures. Utter abysmal defeat. Bugs got ‘em. Disease got ‘em. So we quit trying. Garden what you’re good at, right?

Then last year we cleared some gardening space in our back yard. It’s a long story but we almost quit the erratically-managed community garden where we’ve rented for a decade. At the last minute, CRR caved. So we’ve got two gardens: our back yard and the community garden mile away.

Time to experiment. We have about six hours of direct sun at home, so we tried vegetables that have failed us time and time again in the full-sun community plot. The sugar snap peas have had a spectacular season. No issue there – we eat them right of hand, or in salads. Arugula and butter lettuce have had a long spectacular season, apparently loving the cool shade. We love it.

cukesBut the cukes. O.M.G. After two months of agonizing over their lazy interest to thrive, BOOM, the vines took off. I watched the cute little yellow blossoms turn into tiny cucumbers-to-be. They’re climbing the trellises and threatening the tomatoes.

Now we are reaping the harvest. Suddenly we have 6-8-10-inch muscle-bound cukes. Gulp. After so many years of failure, I am ill-equipped to deal with this onslaught.

I’m making a mandoline-thin sliced cucumber feta salad for dinner tonight. But clearly I need more ideas. Send me your recipes! #Help!

Sandy K. Johnson is a journalist who writes real news and is a fierce protector of the First Amendment. 

Sorry I have been AWOL. Blame the job. I will try to do better this year.

Mother’s Day seems like a great time to renew this blog, since my mother has been such an inspiration to me. She’s 84 and she’s still gardening.

OK, it’s gardening “lite” – last year she had one cucumber plant and one tomato plant. But she still glories in the small joys of gardening: choosing just the right plant, procuring the right soil (JJJJ, this is your department) and nurturing the plants to harvest. I think she’s a “vegetable whisperer.”

It may be a micro version of the enormous garden she once had, but on the other hand she no longer has to feed six hungry mouths. She only has to enjoy the gifts that God gives us, with her expert care and vigilance against varmints.

Mom: CRR is trying to grow some gooseberries from seed. I remember them from Grandma Benner’s garden, small seedy juicy berries that we ate straight from the plant. They’re called husk cherries in other parts of the country, which I discovered in St. Louis last summer when a James Beard nominee chef joyfully incorporated them into his dishes.

Mom: I don’t “can” tomatoes like you did, but I diligently cook tomato sauce and freeze it, a frugal streak I got from you. Though I have to say, this time-consuming kitchen work is tried when I see that I can buy two 15-ounce cans of diced tomatoes for $1. Really, all that work for 50 cents?! I guess it’s the “love” component.

tulipMom: My flower gardens are a direct tribute to your love of gardening. All year long, as I baby the flowers and admire their beauty, I think of you. The lilacs just finished. Roses are blooming. Soon we’ll have iris and peonies and hydrangea. Everything in its time.

These things, so tangible yet so intangible, I owe to you. We owe to you.

Happy Mother’s Day.

xoxo, your favorite daughter (sorry, sibs, you knew that was coming)

Sandy K. Johnson is a journalist in Washington, D.C., and mother of two sons. 

Oh joy! The tomatoes are finally ripening, after months of (our) impatient waiting. It’s time to get creative with tomato recipes.

When I looked at the big plateful of tomatoes, I had a flashback to our trip to France last September. At a restaurant in Giverny where Monet used to hang out with his pals, I had a wonderful appetizer called something like “freshness of the summer.” It certainly tasted like summer. Mary and I tried to deconstruct it, and I came home with a scrap of paper with the words “tomato (gazpacho?) cucumber sour cream feta.”

All these months later, I can no longer envision it. But essentially it was a tomato parfait presented prettily in a glass. It was delicious. With my tomato bounty, I tried to re-create it. Here is my version, sorta kinda the same.

Tomato Parfait

2 c. of ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced

Balsamic vinegar, reduced to a syrup

2/3 c. creme fraiche (you can substitute plain Greek yogurt but it will lose some of the silkiness)

2 seedless mini cucumbers, diced

1/4 c. feta cheese, cut into small cubes

1 T. chives, minced

Divide the diced tomatoes among four stemmed glasses. Drizzle with the reduced balsamic vinegar syrup. Mix the creme fraiche and diced cucumbers, and spread on top of the tomato layer. Scatter the feta cubes on top. Sprinkle with minced chives.

Note: I don’t think this needs salt, because of the balsamic and the feta, but add if you think necessary.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

The first beets are in! After lording it over my gardening sibs (who demanded time-stamped proof), what to do with the first beets of the season?

I love all-things-beets. But the first beets get the unadulterated treatment. I simmered them til almost tender, skinned them, and ate a bowlful for dinner. That’s all: Beets, a spritz of butter, a sprinkle of salt and pepper. You can almost feel the iron coursing through your veins. Move over Popeye! (and if you know who Popeye is, well, you’ve dated yourself)

One lone beet survived the initial beet-fest. I thought through my beet possibilities. Beet goat cheese dip, from our friends Ruth and Tim? Mandoline-thin slices of beet topped with salad and goat cheese? Or perhaps a knockoff of a quinoa salad I had at Virtue Feed & Grain in Old Town Alexandria?

Done. I love quinoa and the Lone Beet provided the excuse to reinvent Cathal Armstrong’s recipe.

Beet Quinoa Salad

Cook one cup quinoa according to package instructions. Allow to cool. Meanwhile, dice one beet into small ruby-colored cubes and snip a handful of chives. The restaurant’s recipe calls for paper thin slices of radishes, but I substituted apple slices since my radish crop had ended. The former gives the salad a peppery bite; the apple instead added a little sweetness. Mix up a lemon vinaigrette. Gently mix the quinoa with the other ingredients, salt & pepper to taste. Then sprinkle with goat cheese. Enjoy. Serves 4 as a side dish.

Share your favorite beet recipes, because we are about to come into a beet bonanza!

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA. Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

We plant a variety of vegetables every year — little of this, little of that. My dream garden would be all tomatoes, only tomatoes.

My earliest garden memories are of tomatoes. Big platters of my mother’s sliced beefsteak tomatoes, which my father would sprinkle with sugar to enhance the natural sweetness of the fruit. And like my grandmother, my mom grew yellow pear tomatoes, the distinctive shape and size delightful to a child.

My mother would extend the tomato season by canning quarts of them, beautiful jars of ruby-toned fruit lined up by the dozen in the basement. To this day, my 82-year-old mother grows at least one tomato plant and brags with the rest of us about her harvest.

This year, we’ve got a mix of old favorites, new varietals and (once again!) an experiment with grafted tomatoes. DeBaggio’s didn’t make our choices easy, with 100 varietals to choose from (they stagger their stock into early and late harvest types – check the website).

Juliet. These are slightly larger cherry tomatoes, oval in shape, growing in abundant clusters. We had great success with Juliet a couple years back, and I expect to be popping the first one into my mouth in less than 60 days.juliet

Brandywine. This is native to either Amish country in Pennsylvania or the Shenanoah Valley, depending on who you believe. In any event, it produces well here in the DC suburbs. DeBaggio’s says it is “considered by many to be the finest-flavored tomato ever offered.” Ever! Bold deep flavors is what I remember. Counting back from 90 days…

German Giant. We had great fun joking about our German Johnson tomato a few years back. This one is an heirloom that promises big deep pink fruit. Heirlooms are tricky in our hot humid climate, so we’ll watch it closely.

Tangerine. DeBaggio’s says this is a heavy producer of orange (tangerine?) colored fruit.

Japanese Black Trifele. This one is the wildcard. Color ranges from intense black to dark gray blushed with magenta. Pear-shaped fruit weighing three to five ounces.

These tomatoes are in the ground, with a sprinkling of crushed egg shells to strengthen the shaft with calcium (a trick we learned from gardening guru Mike McGrath).  They are thriving in last week’s rain and now basking in mid-70s sunshine. The grafted tomatoes are coming from Wisconsin, and given the long cold winter there, might not show up til June!

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

I’d been watching for weeks, stalking DeBaggio online. Finally the words I sought were flashing across the nursery’s website: “Basil, tomatoes, peppers now available.” CRR and I were both running Saturday morning errands and I texted him: Time to drive out to Chantilly.

Our friend Anne swore by DeBaggio’s for these garden necessities. She said the nursery wouldn’t put anything out for sale until the overnight temperatures would let them survive and thrive. Indeed the website says, “I can guarantee the quality of our plants because we grow them ourselves.” So weeks earlier we had decided on a road trip for this year’s tender veggies and drove 33 miles out to Chantilly.

DeBaggio’s Herb Garden and Nursery dates to 1975. It was once surrounded by Virginia countryside but exurban growth has encroached to within a block of the nursery. The founder, Thomas DeBaggio, wrote several well-regarded books about gardening – and later, stricken with Alzheimer’s, he wrote about the disease and advocated for research on Oprah and NPR. His family carried on after he died a few years ago.

We browsed the stock, astonished at the variety. 23 kinds of oregano – after tasting several leaves, I settled on Greek Mountain, which the DeBaggio catalog said would “make the tongue tingle.” 27 types of basil – I picked up Napoletano, Genoa Green and a pistou miniature. The catalog said the Genoa Green “is the only variety we use for pesto.” OK then!

DeBaggio’s had 16 varietals of rosemary, an herb described as “shrouded in ancient legends and the smoke from modern barbeque grills.” By chance, I had read an article in the Washington Post last week about the severe winter kill-off of rosemary plants in our region. I lost two. So I chose Hill Hardy rosemary, which DeBaggio’s said was winter hardy below zero. That should defy the winter gods. The catalog had three essays dedicated to rosemary, one on “hardiness of rosemary and growing outdoors,” “growing rosemary in containers,” and “ranking rosemary varieties for use.”

DeBaggio's

DeBaggio’s

It was a pleasure to shop for herbs at a nursery that obviously cares deeply about its products and relates to gardeners as professional-to-professional, even for us amateurs.

Next week: our tomato selections.

P.S. Since we were so deep into the Virginia suburbs, we drove the extra 10 miles to Arno’s pastry stand at Gilberts Corner for a treat. CRR chose a cream-filled éclair and I picked a tart lemon meringue tart.  As I wrote earlier, delicieux!

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

I should have known better.

I was literally at the checkout of our local nursery, Greenstreet Gardens, when I spied the mandevillas.

They are one of my annual go-to plants. CRR years ago gave me a pair of beautiful tall pillars, and they provide support for gorgeous mandevilla vines every summer. After trying several varietals, I’ve settled on the Alice DuPont, whose prolific pink trumpet-shaped blossoms are a show-stopper.

Mandevilla

Mandevilla

They typically aren’t available here until mid-May – think Mother’s Day – because they’re tropical plants and don’t tolerate chilly spring nights. But the price was right, so I bought three. Back at the checkout, I asked the Greenstreet worker how much cold it could tolerate. “Cover it or bring it inside if the temperature goes lower than 45,” she said.

It was a beautiful day – sunny, approaching 70 – so I was lulled into thinking our chilly nights were over. Well, three nights already this week I have had to cover the poor vines to shelter them from temps dipping into the low 40s. Tonight there is a threat of 30s, so I’ll just have to cross my fingers. And curse my inability to resist the temptation when I knew it was too early. Rookie gardener mistake!

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

It’s time to shut down the garden and reflect on six lessons learned in 2013.

1. Only buy locally grown tomato plants. The fancy twice-the-price superman plants we imported from Oregon actually underperformed the local yokels. I think they just couldn’t cope with a Washington summer that saw a long drought followed by monsoon rains, interspersed with the usual hot and humid weather. CRR ordered some of the grafted tomatoes for his parents, and their plants thrived in the cooler South Dakota climate. We rather enviously helped his mother harvest the last of her tomatoes in mid-October.

2. Studiously ignore the parsnip section of the seed catalogs. I thought I loved parsnips, but it turns out I like parsnips in small doses. Like buying half a dozen at a time at the farmers market. We had two full rows of parsnips, and simply grew tired of the few preparations we concocted. There is still a bag full of them in the back of the spare refrigerator. I hope they don’t multiply in there.

3. In fact, studiously ignore the seed catalogs altogether until spring is just around the corner. Otherwise, we cave to winter cravings rather than stick to the tried-and-true.

4. Thin the ridiculous mint and horseradish. Let me repeat in harsher terms: Ruthlessly hack back the mint and horseradish, which both grow like the invasive species they are. A flame-thrower might be in order. (Hint: Christmas gift?)

5. Call my brother in Minneapolis for instructions on when to plant the fall crop. He had a huge late October harvest, including a massive haul of green beans, by planting in mid-August. We put our fall seeds into the ground too late. #EpicFail.fall-leaves-autumn-graphy-views_356851

6. Show no mercy to volunteer plants that sprout amid our carefully plotted rows. We wound up with a stupid curved squash whose vines menaced a terrified Brandywine tomato. And a pumpkin vine that crept around two sides of the garden and produced exactly 1.5 pumpkins.

Enough venting. Just remind me to re-read this list when spring rolls around.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening

I arrived home one night last week and came face-to-face with a platter full of ripe tomatoes and peppers. CRR was out of town, so I knew tomatoes and peppers were the answer to the what’s-for-dinner question.

Then I remembered a recent tweet from @ChefJoseAndres about an attractive tomato & egg concoction. He’s one of my favorite Washington chefs, has a great story. Andres trained as a chef in Spain, came to Washington with little but his knives, and proceeded to build a culinary empire. His debut restaurant, Jaleo, helped put Penn Quarter on the map before the neighborhood was cool. A host of Andres restaurants are within a stone’s throw of my office: Jaleo, Oyamel, Zaytinya and Minibar. All are excellent, with a great vibe.

Just a few blocks from Jaleo is DC Central Kitchen, a food bank that turns leftover food into healthy meals for the needy. Andres got involved with DC Central Kitchen soon after he arrived in Washington, using his celebrity to transform the food bank into a cause. Bravo, Chef.

Now, back to that platter of tomatoes and peppers. His tweet was a photo of a traditional Spanish dish, pisto manchego. It can be served warm or cold, on just about anything, according to the recipes I consulted. I ate mine with a fried egg, as served by Andres.

pisto manchego

pisto manchego

Pisto Manchego for One

2-3 ripe tomatoes, skin removed, chopped

1/2 medium onion, chopped

2 peppers, chopped (I prefer the natural sweetness of red peppers)

2-3 cloves garlic, minced

(optional: zucchini)

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a sauté pan, add the peppers and onion and cook over medium heat until softened. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Add the tomatoes, then a pinch of sugar to balance the acidity, cover, and cook until almost all the liquid is absorbed. Season with salt and pepper. Remove pisto to a pretty bowl and cover to keep warm. Fry one egg to soft stage, drape over the pisto. When you cut into the egg, the yolk will melt into the pisto. Enjoy.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.

Usually this far into the summer, I’m getting tired of tomatoes. Last year, we were eating tomatoes by mid-June. This year, the long cool spring has really set back the tomato crop. But one of our new tomatoes, the Legend, is finally producing.

The Legend was developed at Oregon State University by James Baggett. As promised by OSU, it is the first of our large tomato varieties to ripen. This particular plant is one of the ‘grafted’ tomatoes that we bought this year. It’s full of fruit, doing much better than some of the other tomato plants that have struggled with recent monsoon-like rains and now a 6-day heat wave.

Baggett developed 45 varieties of vegetables during his long career at OSU, and was named to the Seedsmen Hall of Fame. No, I didn’t make that up. The Seedsmen Hall of Fame, sponsored by Victory Seeds, is dedicated to the horticulturalists who create the thousands of varieties of fruits and veggies that fill the seed catalogs – and entice you in the winter to over-order. “Preserving the past, one seed at a time,” is its slogan.

If you’re interested in history, click on some of the biographies of the Hall of Famers. It’s a Who’s Who of  those seed catalogs. W. Atlee Burpee, who pioneered the mail order seed business. George W. Park, whose company became an empire but eventually fell into bankruptcy. Henry Field, who made his fortune by undercutting Burpee’s prices. Fascinating reading if you’re a gardener.

Legend Tomato

Legend Tomato

Back to the Legend. I can tell you that Baggett developed a tasty tomato. I ate the first one with just a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. It was excellent.

Sandy Johnson is a journalist and a gardener, equally passionate about both. She lives in Alexandria, VA.  Visit her on her blog, Grassroots & Gardening.