Sunday, December 15, 2013

Winter Gardening

Positioning the marker just so in the pot
After my last post, I fully expected to stay indoors for a couple months. Then my gaze fell on my in-box, and on the radish seeds someone gave my daughter for her November birthday. "Come on kids!" I shouted. "Let's go plant these radishes real quick!"

"Okay!" responded my 5 year old son enthusastically. "And carrots too! They're a winter crop!"

Well. Can't argue with his garden savvy or his gusto, so the three of us spent an hour in the vegetable garden this afternoon. It was in the low 60s, I'd say, a welcome respite from the recent "bitter" (by Bay Area standards) cold. We planted radishes in a pot, and in the ground cilantro, mesclun, beets, and carrots, all from seed. I pulled out my sad, sad plants formerly known as tomatoes, clicked my tongue over my peas, and weeded. Grr. Also tried to redirect some sneaky bamboo, grr x 1000.

Any excuse to practice those kindergarten writing skills
The kids spent their time messing around with the seed packets and decorating plant markers (craft sticks). That was actually a good use of their time, as opposed to having them sow the actual seeds with me, which is a great way to have your lettuce row sprout a big ol' cilantro in the middle. It will be handy to have a visual marker of what went where, since my memory is obviously deteriorating rapidly.

I think the Vitamin D did us all good. Whether we'll reap anything more tangible, time will tell.
Of COURSE you need to bring out about 50 craft sticks to choose from. All the markers too. You never know what you'll need.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Frosty Christmas

We are hopefully nearing the end of a cold snap that's been raging for more than a week. I am trying to avoid looking out back at my poor garden. Needless to say, as the mere undergardener, I did not think of protecting my crops until I walked the kids to school on the first morning after the first frost, and saw many houses with improvised frost covers in their gardens.  "Oops," read my thought bubble. I later went out and picked a couple of the ripe golden cherries just to check. WOW - I have never eaten such a nasty, bitter tomato before. Now I know and will do better next year! As soon as it warms up a little, I'll get out there and pull the tomatoes, peas, and whatever other sorry specimens are still in the ground.

Meanwhile, there's plenty to occupy us with Christmas preparations. My kindergartener is singlehandedly designing ornaments out of construction paper, felt, and sparkly pipe cleaners. My toddler is busy coloring with markers and leaving their caps off. We've got stuff to do, people! See you in January!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Christmas Chraziness Underway

Thanksgiving's a distant memory now; we are full speed ahead to Christmas in my house now. So nice with kids - they are excited by the slightest sprig of holly and the shortest strand of lights on the neighbor's window. Meanwhile, yesterday we harvested another handful of golden cherry tomatoes AND one cute little boysenberry. Dude, you are really going to be sorry you decided to fruit when the cold snap hits tonight.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Winter Ahoy

Finally, some rain predicted for today! A bit fell this morning, just at the wrong time to get me all excited about rainboots and rainjackets for the walk to school, by which time it had stopped. We had to pause midway so my son could switch his boots for his shoes (in his backpack). More is in the forecast, which is awesome because as usual I am sick of watering. However, the tomatoes still have not gotten the memo that winter is almost here - my bush Roma, in particular, rocks on, albeit more slowly than in its prime. The cilantro is also looking good still - got to plan a meal around that! I see a few green tantalizers where we planted a variety of seeds a couple weeks ago so they will love the rain too.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Fall Colors

This year I am more attuned than ever to the fall colors all around us. Even more than when I was in college in Massachusetts - I distinctly recall enjoying the colors then, but now that I am older, that layer of recognition of the passing of time makes the fleeting beauty sweeter. We walk to school daily and I, at least, am dazzled.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Slim Pickings

The kids and I picked about 10 golden cherry tomatoes, some mint and cilantro (for my spring roll toppers - kids won't eat either), and some unauthorized lettuce. "Unauthorized" because I would have said it was too small to pick, but the 2 y.o. has a "better to ask forgiveness than permission" policy. Those golden cherries just keep on giving, and we keep taking. I watered my new seed area (lettuce, carrots, etc.) and kept my fingers crossed. We'll be out of town for the long weekend so I hope the watering will last them until Tuesday. I also gave my mint its periodic cutting-back; it always seems to love it and come back stronger.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Our Garden is Beautiful

My 2 y.o. and I spent some time this morning gardening together. No matter how little I feel like gardening, or how little I'm looking forward to the drudgery of winter gardening, just getting out there and doing it with a little helper puttering nearby is sweet. Bonus: It leaves me with an (undoubtedly illusory) feeling of accomplishment. Today, after I turned over a patch about 4'x4', she and I planted cilantro, beets, carrots, and "Salad Bowl" lettuce (the latter in ground as well as in a pot that I had just yanked basil from - call it an experiment). I enhanced the soil with some of my special Recycling Center compost; fingers crossed. I pulled out the basil (sniff; it was so good to me this year) and a Roma tomato. I showed the baby how to break up soil clumps with her little shovel, and she trotted after me when I took things out to the green waste. We picked a few golden cherries and took a break to munch them. And when we were done, she wiped her hands on her jeans and announced, "Our garden is beautiful!"

I had to agree.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Full Speed to Halloween

My homegrown Cinderella's Coach is the belle of the ball.
Second biggest holiday of the year for kids! I did not fully appreciate that until this year. My family
and I are loving the crisp morning walks to school, spotting and admiring many spooky decorations around the neighborhood, and endless chatter about costumes. (Maybe that last one is enjoyed more by the kids than by me.) Only two more days! It's so exciting to be a kid this time of year - magic around every corner.

In the garden - oh, right, the garden! - I brought myself to pull my green beans. Boy, was it time. The cilantro is doing great, the lettuce I planted at the same time - not so much. I just can't seem to get the hang of lettuce's timing. I want to plant more peas and new carrots this week, and - hope springing eternal - lettuce. We're still getting a few golden cherry tomatoes. "We" meaning my little locusts, who swarm the bush and promptly eat the fruits before anyone else can get to it. I may need to pull the tomatoes for room.

Locusts at work.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Indian Summer

Meager October harvest
 Indian summer in the Bay Area is the best. It *almost* makes up for the lack of a real summer. It's warm but not hot. The light is gorgeous. You can wear whatever you want - shorts! t-shirt! pants! jacket! - and you'll be fine. Houses are putting out their autumn and Halloween decorations. We've started playing "Count the Pumpkins" on our daily walk to school.

A good 30 minutes of entertainment
Preparing to throw away my cilantro because she doesn't care for it
This week's weather has been amazing so we've spent some time in the backyard. I pulled out the remains of the Angry Birds birthday party knockdown game, and my son entertained himself for quite a while setting it up in new configurations ("levels"), just like the real game. Tip: Used the soccer goal behind the set-up to help with picking up and re-assembly.  My husband made the components of the game from rinsed-out cans, boxes that were in the recycling, the color printer, and some kraft paper with drawn-on faux-bois (to simulate the wood in AB). We definitely have gotten our money's worth out of his effort!

 Lots of cilantro going to seed because it's hard to use it all up when the kids don't eat it and my husband doesn't like it anywhere near as much as me. Sadly, very little else to pick. I still can't bring myself to yank anything, but Plantapocalypse is coming....

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Pumpkin Season

Nothing much new to report in the garden, other than that I really need to get out there and make some hard decisions about yanking plants. I am too tender-hearted for this part of gardening! I don't think it will be today; I am pumpkin-hung-over from a pumpkin-treat-themed playgroup yesterday. I got myself in the mood with pumpkin ravioli for lunch, then friends brought over steamed pumpkin bites with garlic yogurt, pumpkin pie made with an actual gourd, a variety of pumpkin muffins, pumpkin crackers, pumpkin cream cheese... and to top it off I cracked open a bottle of pumpkin hard cider (for moms only, needless to say, in dixie-cup-sized servings!). I felt distinctly queasy last night, then forgetfully chose pumpkin bread for morning snack today. D'oh!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Uh, guys, hate to break it to you, but it's October.
I get it, you're beautiful and perfect. Jeez.
Today not only is the berry bush blossoming, but so is the third of the three pumpkin plants I planted this summer. The pumpkin has only one tiny fruit bud on it - if it survives, perhaps it would be normal size by December or January! And the blackberries - man, they are just confused. I got only one pumpkin from the four plants this year, although it was a Cinderella's Coach beauty. We picked it last week and it is gracing the front porch now. I trimmed back the two berries yesterday as the new canes were trying to mate with the neighbor's plum tree over the fence. The berries were great producers in June/July but have decently wrapped up... or so I thought.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

When to Yank?

Almost too cute to eat
The thing that always strikes me about the weekend is that, with kids, it is as busy or busier than a weekday. However, at least my kids are old enough so that they can run free out in the backyard while I am fretting about the garden, a.k.a. watering and weeding. I can't do any real work, like planting, with their help. Well, I mean, I do it with their help, and then I go out later and do it again. Anyway, so we grabbed some time this morning on one of the hottest days of the year to go out back and fret, and/or poke your sister with a stick, and/or take your brother's tub of tomatoes that mommy said not to mess around with (depending on your age and weight class).

My main fret-tage currently concerns when to yank my summer/fall harvesting plants. I get - literally - a handful of green beans every couple days at this point. Worth keeping the plants? A few tomatoes are ripe, with a few more still green on the plant preventing me from pulling it. Am I a sucker? Am I letting these overripe plants suck the nutrients out of the soil and I'll never ever get it back? Remember - I'm the "undergardener", not the head gardener. I don't have a clue what I'm doing.

However, on the plus side - and the awesome thing about gardening is there is always a little bit of a plus side - my pea shoots are up, cilantro is abundant, and I got one cute lil' strawberry today, just about the size of my thumbnail. And picked up some free compost from the city recycling center. Fall planting is just around the corner, as soon as I get rid of these summer plants...

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Basil Forever

... That's what it seems like, anyway. As long as I pick off the flowers as soon as I notice them, apparently no harm no foul. I bought it in April or May, from a local nursery, potted it, and after a slow start, it's been a faithful producer all summer. (During the slow start, I panicked and bought a bonus basil from Trader Joe's, which shriveled up by August.)  I am going to leave my producer alone as long as it seems happy and healthy - maybe it can be a year-rounder if we have a mild winter? Ah, gardening fantasies.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Fall Craft Mayhem

The inspiration and the perspiration
Oh, Family Fun magazine. You really are the parent's Martha Stewart Living. I cannot resist attempting your cute owls, and now my kids cannot resist whining for them every single day at snacktime.

We've also gathered lots of fall leaves on the daily walk to school for a variety of craft opportunities, including painting, glueing, and simply sorting and discussing. Endlessly fascinating in the array of colors and shapes. As per Martha in the October issue, I obtained glycerine at great personal effort in order to give our collection a glycerine-water bath, thus preserving their colors.

Look how I follow directions! Hmph
Maybe I cheaped out on the amount of glycerine (they're not giving the stuff away) but the result was sort of hit or miss. (My son sorted some into a new "do not use" pile.)  I even weighed down the bath in order to evenly distribute it. Oh well, it's good enough for a first try, and me and my family's - erm - level of crafting expertise.

How's the garden coming along, you ask? Um.... yeah.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

DIY Angry Birds Birthday Party

The finished pinata, looking awesome
 The older child is turning 5, and since he is obsessed with Angry Birds, it was the obvious choice for the party theme. Less obvious was the amount of work we were letting ourselves in for by going DIY for much of it, including pinata, knock-down game, and cupcakes. As my husband pointed out, were I not also somewhat of a fan of the game, we might not have gotten *quite* so into the theme.

Thanks to Shery K Designs who, according to the Internet, has made a pack of Angry Birds printables readily available to the rest of us. We used most of the templates.

Pinata in process
But, still - all in all, a lot of work. After resizing, laying out, and printing, it still took me about 2 hours to make 24 cupcake toppers (with some spousal support toward the end). I did construction paper circles with a bird or pig on either side. The DIY pinata (just google that phrase for many ideas and instructions) was ably handled by the birthday boy's father, with some "help" from the child. (Recurrent theme in our family.) It took a few hours. I don't begrudge the time making and decorating the actual cupcakes since that's my strong preference for getting something tasty out of a party ... but that was a couple hours too, now that you mention it.  Dyeing shredded coconut yellow for the yellow Bird cupcakes turned out particularly nicely.
Cupcakes with toppers, arranged in a tableau with knock-down game's cans

Target supplied the napkins and table covers, and "loot bags" (how I hate that concept, but it was handy for the pinata filling).  Now a distant memory, the invitations themselves were a fair bit of work too. I freehanded a yellow Bird and a piggie on construction paper, then cut out a text circle and glued it to each one. My child helped with that too.  We had to go hard copy invites since I wanted to invite his whole class and, it being so early in the school year, we didn't have an email list yet. No doubt this will also be a recurrent theme for his birthday each year.

Prep time aside, everything turned out great and the kid loved it. That's what's important. We didn't spend a lot, and we even got a few cute family photos out of it. Viva los Angry Birds!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Falling Leaves

Fall colors - preserved in a glycerine bath (upon recommendation by Martha in the October issue), ready for a project. Do I really have to share with the kids? Unfortunately for my selfish instincts, they were deeply involved in gathering the leaves on our daily walk to school, and doing the bath.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Fall Planting: Beets, Peas, Lettuce

Checking out the last of the golden cherries
Planted today - it had been on my to-do list for about two weeks but everything else - such as planning for the world's best Angry Birds birthday party, coming up this weekend - took precedence. On a lovely 70-degree day, took the 2 y.o. out there for some "help" (company) to plant a third sowing (this go-round's count) of salad bowl lettuce and cilantro. Planted two rows of beet seeds, one from this year and one from 2008 that my husband had saved (they WERE yummy golden beets, but my hopes are not high), and - a first for me - snow peas. Mixed advice from Pam Peirce on all the beets and peas but I figured worth a try. Anytime I have the time and ability to plant, I try to, with whatever *could* theoretically work at that time of year, +/- a month (or two).
The contemporary seeds I planted today (2008 beets not shown)
My "helper" hard at work dropping pea seeds all over the place

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Garden Chores

Watering: an unfavorite chore in the garden. Not that, come to think of it, I have a "favorite" chore. Gardening is a bunch of work sporadically punctuated with something yummy. But one of the reasons I liked the name The Undergardener for this blog is because I have so much still to learn about gardening, and none of it comes naturally to me. Didn't do it growing up, didn't even do it as an adult until moving into the first home I owned three years ago. Nothing is "in my head" - I have to schedule planting, watering, even harvesting, among all the other garden chores. Today, my to-do list includes watering, alongside make dinner, do laundry, and oh yeah, pick up the kids from school. (Phew, I remembered to do that!) It's a hot day and the kids are home, which means the plants will be quite lucky to actually get any of the water on themselves as it will be in high demand for mudpies and sprinkler-running. Because I am not going to have time (or any of us the patience) for a full hand-watering, I'll hand-water the berries and pots (basil, mint), then set the sprinkler in the main planted area. It's late afternoon, which means it may not dry fully before night... oh, jeez, better just get out there now and do it!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Parenting by Rewards Chart

While I have been posting lately about the garden, I do also have kids around, and they do more than just mess up my new plantings. They also mess around generally and make it hard to get out the door in the morning to get to school on time. Thus, we decided that a rewards chart would help keep things humming at our house. We went through a couple iterations with vague rewards, and a dry-erase chart that resulted in numerous pen marks on the wall. Starting today, we have a new and improved chart I created in Word, and the reward is clear: 10 extra minutes of iPod time on Sunday evening. ie., more Angry Birds. It is all Angry Birds, all the time, at our house. This should help. I designed it as a grid, using the AB Feast of Flesh font, added in a motivating AB, and listed his chores. Then I drew them too, since he is still learning to read. Now we will add an X every time he completes a chore by himself. Fingers crossed!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Fall Planting

Got all fired up to do fall planting now that my tomatoes seem to be slowing down, and rushed right out to buy beet, snow pea, and carrot seeds. Not until the next day did I check in with Golden Gate Gardening... and find I'm completely off the mark. Maybe I could take a risk and put the beets in, but the other two, no. Always over-ambitious... I don't know if that's the mark of the novice gardener, or just A gardener.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Tomatoes and Plums

EVERY DAY.  I remembered AGAIN! I even had a helper picking many unripe tomatoes for me... well, maybe they'll ripen a bit on the windowsill.

Also harvested a few leaves of container lettuce - nice, since I haven't had much luck with that venue before - and a couple strawberries. F YOU, SLUGS! Have I shared my slug repellent? I use broken eggshells everywhere I think the little bastards might crawl to get at my few but luscious berries. Works just fine, if the timing is right (scatter them a day or two before the berries are fully ripe), and much cheaper than the beer method, which after a few weeks I realized was a) costing me, and b) getting my kids a little too comfy with the nasty smell of old beer.

In less good news, I picked up a couple pounds of plums at the Berkeley Bowl this week intended to make freezer jam from them. As usual, it turned out as a sauce. Boy, is my freezer full of varied fruit sauces and syrups. I need my Jam Mentor friend to come over and walk me through it step by step. She has such a sure hand with jam, that (she told me this week) she tried to make syrup, and it turned out as jam.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Too Many Tomatoes

While I in fact did remember to pick tomatoes yesterday - bearing in mind you have to pick EVERY DAY in season - I stopped after a pound or two. I didn't make it to the local crop swap, and my husband forgot to take them into work this morning. So we now have about 2 lbs fresh tomatoes sitting around inside, plus who knows how many more needing to be picked today. I'm about ready to have the kids set up a tomato stand and start learning entrepreneurship.

Meanwhile, my 2 y.o. came outside with me to pick yesterday, and picked herself a flower off her brother's ornamental plant. "Put this in my hair right now, lady!" she commanded.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Seasonal Recipes: Lemon-Tomato Pasta Salad

When will I learn that you have to harvest EVERY DAY when tomatoes are in season? This is about half of what I picked, and I only got to two plants. At least I had already incorporated tomatoes into the week's menu plan, so I could use up most of them. We like this pasta salad from Epicurious. It does turn out a bit oily and garlicky, so feel free to ratchet down those ingredients. I also always add more tomatoes - since, after all, I'm trying to use up the harvest. I also use these Alliums of Mystery (tm) in place of the green onions called for in the recipe. I think mine might actually be leeks?

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Pancakes on a Big Boat

What's not to like about that?

Today we took the kids to the monthly pancake breakfast at the SS Red Oak Victory, berthed at the Port of Richmond. We had never been before and had only the vaguest idea it was even there until I picked up a flyer somewhere for the event. You get a scenic (I'm not being sarcastic here - it really is, if you and your kids have any interest in boats/cars/trains/trucks) tour of the Port of Richmond. There's also a staging area to bike out there - unfortunately this is on the other side of a gap in the Bay Trail from Berkeley - for intrepid cyclists who don't mind busy city streets, it's doable.

Volunteers cook up a hearty plate of pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage, and bonus apple slices (classy touch). Juice, "coffee", tea, and water to drink. Only $7 per person, and kids under 5 are free. We got in just under the wire with my 4 11/12th-year-old. Dining tables are set up on the main deck outside.

After eating, you get to tour the ship - a 1944 cargo vessel - on your own, but there's lots of volunteers around to answer questions. You can also buy a guided tour if your kids are old enough to do that. (Mine are so not.) It's fun to explore all the levels and little tiny rooms - including the head! - at your own pace.

Perhaps needless to say, this ship is not childproofed. What's the opposite of childproofed? Because that's pretty much what it is. However, if you are prepared to CLOSELY supervise your kids, and/or you have older kids who can be trusted not to hurl themselves over the side or miss a step on the many ladders between decks, do not miss it. We'll definitely be back next season. You can also go explore the vessel without pancakes - I guess that is a valid choice for the pancake-phobes. Check their website for the schedule.

Words to the wise:
  • Sit facing away from the sun (assuming it's out) - there is no shade. Also try to sit next to the side (not the middle) so you get a better view of passing boats.
  • There's a lady selling mimosas!!
  • The line to send a radio message to your loved ones gets long fast, so may want to do that right at 10 when it opens.
  • Be prepared for any weather - it can be windy, sunny, misty, whatever. It's the ocean.
  • Sometimes they blow the ship's horn. It is loud. My toddler lost her poop and sobbed hysterically for 10 minutes.
  • BYO coffee; let's leave it at that.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Early September in the Garden

Things are looking pretty good. I planted three pumpkin plants and have one pumpkin to show for it - but it's like a magazine-quality pumpkin. A nice high-end magazine, like Martha Stewart Living.

Elsewhere, the prolific mini-Romas are slowing down, but still coming, as are the golden cherry tomatoes (two of those, and that wasn't too many). Since we have a long, strong Indian summer, I should probably be more patient and plant my tomato plants after the traditional Mother's Day date. I bet I'd get more, longer. Hmm. I just can't wait... the sight of all my neat little tomato plants lined up in the ground makes me happy!

A benefit of our generally mild-to-cool climate close to the bay is that lettuce and cilantro are - theoretically - year-round crops. This is the first year I've tried cilantro. The photo shows my 5th sowing ready for picking, and my 6th sowing coming in. I cook with cilantro frequently so I'm motivated to figure out this fussy-ish crop. It didn't like my pot or some other locations in earlier sowings, but so far so good in the lettuce zone. You don't get a ton of seeds in each pack, and my "helpers" always scatter the seeds like crazy, so this is probably my third or fourth pack.

Lettuce is a finicky crop for me. I had wild beginner's luck with it in 2010, our first year in this house. We ate salads straight from the garden for a couple months straight. My husband was in awe. And then... and then... virtually no luck in 2011. 2012 was a rebuilding year. And now in 2013, I've been doing monthly sowing and getting small heads fairly regularly, as you can see in the photo. We like Salad Bowl and butter varieties. I've also done okay with microgreens in a pot. I have a feeling that lettuce might be one of those crops that would prefer being in a planting box instead of directly in the ground. There's also a watering conflict with the tomatoes, in terms of the frequency they want it. I do hand or sprinkler watering instead of drip irrigation - I am interested in drip but haven't gotten around to educating myself enough to implement a system. Maybe I also think it's overkill on my small plot - about 6x15. But clearly over/under-watering is the #2 issue in my vegetable garden.

The #1 issue ... bamboo. Grrr.  Photo shows uninvited guests coming in from neighbor's yard.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Welcome to the Undergardener

Noting the changing season - summer to fall, school starting for my oldest, and harvest season peaking in the vegetable garden. The human instinct to go 'back to school" when leaves start falling is remarkable. I signed myself up for an Indian Vegetarian Cooking class tomorrow, after previously vowing that I was DONE WITH SCHOOL FOREVER. Apparently I feel competitive with - or empathy for - my new kindergartener.