We are having a great cucumber year. So we decided to make our first batch of pickles this week.

We were down to our last jar of bread & butter pickles from last year, so we decided to start with those. You can tell it’s early in the canning season, because I entertained the idea of cutting the cucumbers with the crinkle cutter.

The struggle with these pickles is that you have to slice and salt them, and leave them for an hour to drain before finishing the recipe. And I always forget that – so when I carve out the time to do them, suddenly I have an hour in the middle of it where I need to do something else while I wait, like laundry. I never learn.

The recipe we use is an old American recipe, that came from my Danish mother-in-law. We used my family’s recipe for a number of years, but then had a jar of hers and decided that was the better recipe. We’ve used it a couple of years now and everyone loves it.

The recipe:

  • 8 cups cucumbers, sliced thin
  • 3 cups onions, sliced thin or chopped*
  • 4 tbsp salt

Sprinkle salt over vegetables and let stand 1 hour

Drain and add

  • 2 cups vinegar
  • 2 tsp turmeric powder
  • 2 tsp celery seed
  • 3” stick of cinnamon
  • 3 cups white sugar
  • 4 green peppers, chopped fine*

Bring syrup to a boiling point, just simmering, for 15-20 minutes.  Pour over cucumbers in hot sterilized jar, and process for 10-15 minutes.

*Use half as many as called for, or omit entirely if you don’t like the taste

The results

8 cups of cucumbers netted us 4 pint jars of pickles. Which is a manageable amount to can; as the season runs on we will end up doing double and triple batches, and most of Sunday afternoon into evening will be spent on canning. I am always grateful for the work come the middle of winter, but in the heat of summer it can be draining.

What a difference two weeks makes

We have been keeping up with the watering, and the weather cooled down for a couple of days, which has been so helpful:

Back 40 – corn in the foreground, ground cherries in the middle and pumpkins towards the back

The advantage – if there is one – to the pandemic is that we are home. All the time. So we’re actually caught up on weeding and have had time to sit and do nothing, which is a new, novel experience. I’ve actually sat in the Adirondack chairs by my fire pit several times this summer, admiring my neatly-sculpted yard:

Of course, when I look at it too long, I see things I want to change, other projects I could be starting, and then remember that the hostas need to be split and moved. The hostas will always need to be split and moved – does anyone actually buy hostas anymore, or are they just divided off one plant, continuing on for all of eternity, that got too large in the Garden of Eden and was cast out along with Adam and Eve? It seems fitting – “Oh hey, since you’re going, how about some plants to get you started?”

Coming Right along

We’re about a month into gardening season, and things are growing steadily, despite the continuing lack of rain. It has required a LOT of watering, which Old McDonald has mostly been handling:

The back garden is not as far along as our new garden, because that area out back is always wet until early June, making it difficult to till until then. On the upside, when the plants start growing, they generally tend to do well due to the drainage in that area. All bets are off in a year that is unusually dry, like this one is, however.

Cucumbers, zucchini, crookneck squash, sunflowers

We rearranged plants this year, moving the cucumbers and squash, which are often beset by bug issues, into the new garden area, leaving the main garden just tomatoes (15 types) and peppers (4 types.)

The raised beds are struggling in the heat – probably because those are usually used for cool-weather crops, like lettuce, arugula, herbs, beets and carrots – and lettuces in particular really don’t like heat.

Every year is always a little different; looks like this year will be the one where the beds struggle. We keep waiting for a break in the heat for another successive planting, but we’ve been thwarted as of late.

We Now Return to Our Regularly Scheduled Summer Activities

Greetings! It certainly has been a long time, hasn’t it? We never stopped gardening, I just stopped blogging. In the summer of 2017 I got back into community theater and that has been a whirlwind of productions, either as an actor, writer, director, or producer and has not left much time for keeping up with this site. Now that the pandemic has caused those of us with the option to stay home to social distance, I feel like this is the year to get this blog regularly updated again. I am remembering, however, that I will be struggling for content until the vegetables actually start to be harvested, so you’re in for about 8 weeks of me blathering on about books, other blogs and random plant facts. Watching plants grow is about as exciting as watching plants dry. But if you’re out of options on Netflix, swing on by this blog.

We got off to a great start this year, with good-sized seedlings ready for planting by mid-May:

The indoor greenhouse

Memorial Day weekend has always been our traditional planting weekend, per the advice of my grandfather and this year we got everything in on Friday. First we had some prep work to do:

Daisy (as in “Daisy-cutter”)

We need to redo the fence on the main garden but have not figured out a workable solution to having a removable end piece with any of the options we have been exploring. J has suggested perhaps making the open end near the patio, but that gets into moving the bench, outdoor sink, and rolling across the patio which is not my top choice. J thinks the pie-shaped bed at the end of the garden would make a great rose garden, and I don’t disagree, but absent a workable solution for getting the tiller in there every two years, it needs to be something that gets planted annually.

Speaking of plants, here’s how they look after this weekend:

It’s not very exciting, and it won’t be for a number of weeks. The middle photo captures the newest bed addition, our hops bed – you can barely see the strings reaching up from the bed to an overhead pole designed to encourage the vines to grow up and around the strings. If it works, it should make a really interesting backdrop by mid-summer.

Worth the work

So, more days than not Old MacDonald (sometimes accompanied by me, but I have late hours at the job) has been going out to water the Back 40 garden, and it has absolutely paid off:

Photo Aug 05, 6 19 34 PM

Photo Aug 05, 6 43 18 PM

I can’t get over how good it looks.  He did admit that there have been two applications of fertilizer, which combined with the watering seems to more than be working.  Our experiment with grass clippings is also a success; we’ve been out to weed only twice so far this season and both times took about an hour and a half to do the whole garden.

The secret to our success is a 50-gallon cistern we keep in the back, and refill by running hoses linked together from the house whenever it gets down in volume.

And making her first appearance on the blog, Old MacDonald’s mother and a farmer’s daughter (her father was a farmer in Denmark; apparently farming is genetic but skips generations):

Photo Aug 05, 6 40 50 PM
Like Luke, she’s smart enough to help by watching carefully

Our experiment out back is a success – this was the second picking of beans, just two days after our first round:

Photo Aug 10, 9 08 22 AM

I only wish they didn’t turn green when cooked.

It’s a long, hot summer

I can’t believe how long it’s been since we had any substantial rain.  Thank goodness we have the drip irrigation in the main garden and the raised beds:

Main Garden 7-27

Raised Beds 7-27

For the first time in ages, the cucumbers are actually doing something, and will bear fruit:

Cucumber 7-27
Lush cucumbers, dead lawn behind them

Powder mold, squash beetles and other environmental factors have contributed to the lackluster performance over the last few years.  It’s been a while since I’ve been able to make homemade pickles.  That might be changing this year.

Of course, we’re still being supervised:

I love hard work, I could watch it all day
I love hard work, I could watch it all day

The nicest thing about this cat is that he wants 5-10 very intense minutes of your attention, and then he moves off to stalk birds or mice or just snooze a bit.  We were commenting the other day about our luck in getting neighborhood cats that actually give us the time of day.  Even better when they keep away the destructive pests.

The first weeks are always the hardest

The growing season is now underway, with the plants doing remarkably well:

Main gardenMain garden 6-26

I love that picture because it’s a beautiful shot of an Adirondack chair I never get to sit in.

There’s also a critter in the garden:

Luke Main Garden 6-26

This is our neighbor Luke, who arrived with the new neighbors when they moved in across the street last spring.  Can’t have an updated garden blog without photos of a neighbor’s cat.  He’s reasonably helpful:

Watching for chipmunks
Watching for chipmunks

He’s actually a better birder but we’ve seen him snag a chipmunk or two.  Good kitty!

He’s not much help with the rabbits, though:


Fortunately this year we have not had a moment where I’ve spotted them in the garden because they can squeeze through the fence.  It seems like our bobcat from years past may not be around, because there are a lot of them.  It was a mild winter, however.

Even the Back 40 is coming along nicely:

Back 40 Second Photo

As part of our new crusade to pay more attention to this garden, we’ve been watering.  It’s pretty dry here – there was very little snow this year, and it hasn’t rained much at all.  It’s a pain to walk out there to water, but we figure it will give the seedlings their best chance.

And the season begins

Howdy!  It only seems like we didn’t do any gardening last year, because I never updated the blog.  We did grow plenty of vegetables, although the Back 40 garden was a complete disaster, overwhelmed by weeds.  I was also overwhelmed by a new job, hence no posts.  But we’re back, and this year there’s a new plan.

This year we are of course doing the usual in the front gardens:

Tomatoes 5-22
Tomato plants

Eggplants & peppers
Eggplants & peppers

These are the leftovers, which we will be giving away to friends and family.  Old MacDonald likes to have extras on hand, in case of premature vegetative death.  Or because he has the flats, so why not fill them?  I just nod and smile; as we all know, I don’t do the seeds.

Out back, though, we’ll be trying something new and different.  In previous years, the Back 40 has been a 25′ x 90′ monstrosity of a garden, where whatever is planted must survive on its own – we’ll weed, but we don’t water, and we’ll fence it to keep critters out but we don’t do much about the bugs.  Last year was such a disaster, weed wise, that we knew we had to do something different this year.  It was so bad we barely harvested anything from the gardens and I refused to go back there by late July because the conditions were so depressing.

This year we’re cutting that garden in half.  As much as we’d like to add to the square foot total of gardens, to make people question our sanity (go ahead, we do too!) – last year was depressing from a yield perspective and until we retire, we need to do what we can manage.  Its been reconfigured, too – a series of raised mounds of dirt to help create beds that can be mulched to keep down weeds:

The new Back 40 configuration
The new Back 40 configuration

We’ll fence it, as we always do, and we’re going to try putting down grass clippings as our mulch to control weeds and lock in moisture.  We’ll see how it goes.

No rest for the weary

We have had one heck of a winter in the Northeast this year.  Boston just broke its all-time snow record for the last 20 years over the weekend, and further out where we live it has been a banner year:

This was the first storm
This was the first storm

Of course, all that snow has to go somewhere, which in our case was a big pile next to the deck:

Mount Cocktail
Mount Cocktail

That’s a pre-Prohibition drink perched up on our hastily-assembled ice bar called Satan’s Whiskers.  Here’s the recipe:

1/2 oz. gin
1/2 oz. Grand Marnier
1/2 oz. sweet vermouth
1/2 oz. dry vermouth
1/2 oz. orange juice
Dash orange bitters

Old McDonald likes to stir the cocktail rather than shake it with ice.  Your mileage may vary.

Speaking of Old McDonald, he’s got a new hobby, and oh lucky me, it involves more boiling!  The new farming hobby is……wait for it…..maple sugaring.  We did the first part the weekend of March 13:

Drilling The tapEmpty single bagEmpty double bagsOf course, you drill the taps and set the bags, and then you get some warm days and this happens:

Full single bagSemi-full double bags40 gallons worth of that, as it happens, in just about 2 weeks.  40 gallons of sap is equivalent to about one gallon of syrup, or so we have read.  But to get to that syrup, first you have to boil it:

Boiling photo 1And boil it…..

Boiling photo 2And by the second weekend, you will decide that you should also have a propane burner to assist in the boiling, and to help your wife this summer, when she cans vegetables:

Boiling photo 3We are currently at about 2 gallons of not-quite syrup, waiting for its final boil.  It’s sitting in the fridge, because we ran out of time and daylight last weekend, and intend to follow up tomorrow, just in time to have it ready for Easter.  Of course, the homemade maple syrup needs a label:

Cocktail_Farmers_LogoI cannot even tell you how excited I am we’ve got a logo now, courtesy of Old McDonald and Adobe Illustrator.  I am going to get a coffee mug out of this entire endeavor if it kills me.

New neighbors

So over on the other blog, Marginally Domesticated, I talk about the craft projects I work on in the (limited) spare time I have.  One of the things J & I do is paint a series of interesting-looking bird houses to hang out in the yard, for variety in the perennial gardens:

Battleship mid rangeThis was one of J’s creations last year. I painted this one:

Adobe birdhouseBecause we hang them on plant hangers, they are fairly unstable and thus generally unattractive as a housing situation for birds.  Also, they’re made of a pretty flimsy balsa wood, meaning they don’t hold up well.  You can see a little bit of mildew along the left edge in this photo.  I decided to slap another coat of paint on it and put it out for decoration again this summer, believing no bird in its right mind would want to live there.

Enter the sparrows.

A few weeks ago, we noticed a sparrow hopping up the ladder into the house, then hopping back out, down the ladder and flying away.  We peeked in, and discovered a mess of twigs stuffed down into the taller part of the adobe house.  Figuring this was just some confused bird, we amused ourselves by watching it hop up the ladder, go in, come out, hop down the ladder, and fly away.  Really, it was charming.

A few days later J went over and lightly touched the house, to see how “construction” was coming, when he heard, “PEEP peepeepeepeepeeepeepeepeep PEEP!” He came back in and said to me, “Congratulations, you’re a slum lord.  You slapped a coat of paint on the place, and now there are 5 birds living in there.”  We couldn’t see them, but we imagined they must have been stacked up in there like cord wood.  It’s a really tiny space in the back, with only one main entrance/exit – the side holes are more like windows.  It was more like an illegal sublet than a real home.

Over the weekend it appears that the young residents have fledged, and the nest is now empty.  There’s poop on the front porch, the inside is trashed, and the bottom is now falling off.  Plus they didn’t pay a lick of rent.  I should have demanded references.

Adventures in aggressive suburban gardening