Category Archives: Fruit

Planting Strawberries

Strawberry Plant

Strawberry Plant

The first week of May this year, we brought home some strawberry plants to join us by the patio. I haven’t grown strawberries before, but I’m excited to see how it goes.

These plants weren’t just an impulse buy. To prepare for our new arrivals:
* I prepared the bed and enriched the soil last year. See Clearing the Way for Strawberries by the Patio.
* I read about strawberries in a number of books. One recent book was: The Backyard Berry Book.
* I waited for spring to come. Although the books indicated that I could have planted sooner, it didn’t feel right until May came.

I decided to plant two varieties of strawberries: June-bearing and everbearing. I am hoping that the June-bearing crop (Allstar) allows us to have a nice harvest all at once, while the everbearing fruits (Ozark Beauty) will be fun for the kids to snack on when we’re playing outside. Since this is the first year, I’ll need to remove the flower buds from the June-bearing strawberries to encourage the roots to be established well. For the everbearing strawberries, I read that I could remove the flower buds until July 1st and then allow the plants to flower and produce fruit after that.

Here are some other strawberry growing tips that I’ve read:
* When planting the new strawberry plants, choose a cool, cloudy day.
* Planting depth is important for the strawberry’s crown. Not too deep, not too high.
* Add a light mulch, such as straw.
* Make sure the plants get one inch of water per week. If the rain isn’t coming, watering in the morning is best.
* Keep the beds well weeded.
* After harvest is finished for June-bearing plants, mow off the foliage (don’t damage the crown) to prevent leaf diseases and encourage strong plant growth.
* Berries appear ripe one month after blossoms have started to appear.
* Pick strawberries with the stems and caps on and place them in a shallow container (3-4 layers deep). Morning is the best time to pick strawberries.
* Refrigerate strawberries as soon as possible after picking and don’t wash them or remove the caps until use.
* Strawberries are ok for 4-5 days in the refrigerator.
* If there are moldy or rotted strawberries, dispose of them away from the strawberry plants.

Patio bed after planting strawberries

Patio bed after planting strawberries

I am hopeful that we will have a nice crop of strawberries next year.

Updates in the Vegetable Garden (September 27, 2013)

The vegetable garden in August.

The vegetable garden in August.

As autumn arrives, the gardens are still producing. Much has grown in the last two months of the garden!

There weren’t many problems to report. Leaf miners returned to visit the swiss chard, but didn’t do much damage. A white powder appeared on the topside of some plants leaves, but didn’t seem to harm the plants. Squirrels and rabbits enjoyed fallen apples and pears and didn’t bother the ones on the trees much. The rabbits also noticed the ground cherries at some point, but we still managed to find more on the ground each day. Yes, there are many weeds in the garden, but I haven’t felt a need to go after them.

My daughter's zinnia plants kept offering purple flowers for her to pick and bring in the house.

My daughter’s zinnia plants kept offering purple flowers for her to pick and bring in the house.

There were many joyful surprises in the garden. I’m not usually crazy about flowers (perhaps you remember my rant about rose bushes) unless the plant offers a practical benefit (something edible or deterring pests), but zinnias have found a place in my heart. My daughter received the seeds at a children’s garden party and she loves to go out and pick the flowers. Watching her put them in a vase on the kitchen table brings joy to our home. They have continued to produce new flowers with determination, so they seem to be a hardy sort of plant. We’ll have to buy some more seeds next year.

Late additions to the garden in the last two months included some wheat grass in a tray and more carrots and peas in my kids’ container garden. We were having plenty to pick and eat so I didn’t worry much about succession planting. Summer gets to be a busy time of year.

Here are more vegetable- and fruit-specific updates:

Zucchini soup was a wonderful evening meal with grated zucchini, carrots, celery, onion, potato, and parsley.

Zucchini soup was a wonderful evening meal with grated zucchini, carrots, celery, onion, potato, and parsley.

Zucchini: Wow. The first one I found was a monster that surely must have grown overnight. And they just kept coming. We made zucchini bread, many bowls of zucchini soup, and enjoyed slicing them up to eat right out of the garden. They taste best when they are small and tender, about 4 or 5 inches long.

Broccoli: The heads were small, but the taste and texture was delicious. It was a nice snack to just chop off a piece to eat with the kids in the afternoon.

Peas: The ‘Tom Thumb’ variety of peas wasn’t too impressive. Little growth, small pods, and then they were done. We’ll go with a different variety next year.

Shells and dry beans.

Shells and dry beans.

Hidatsa Beans: We watched the beans go from being skinny and green to swollen and brown. The dried shells cracked open and revealed maroon-colored beans inside. It was interesting seeing where dry beans come from. I knew it would happen but seeing it with my own eyes was quite the learning experience. The kids enjoyed helping to thresh and pull out the beans. Some of the beans dried right in the garden and sometimes we let a vine hang upside-down in the kitchen to finish drying. If the beans were a little soft, we just left them on the counter to dry out more. Now we just need to try to cook them!

Carrots: These were fun for the kids. The ‘Short n’ Sweet’ variety worked well in the kids’ container garden and were good to eat. With new seeds planted in early September, I hope we can pick more yet this year.

Swiss Chard: We got tired of swiss chard after about a month. The taste seemed to get more bitter over time when eaten raw (our preferred way of eating things). They were pretty in the gardens and a sauté with broccoli and turnips early in the summer was delicious, but I don’t think I’ll plant them again next year.

The cucumbers were cute hanging on the bamboo trellis, despite the spiky exterior.

The cucumbers were cute hanging on the bamboo trellis, despite the spiky exterior.

Cucumber: Another good afternoon snack! Picking a cucumber to slice up and eat warm out of the garden was great. After rubbing off the prickly spikes on the outside, the skin was so soft and edible (unlike the tough skins on large grocery store cucumbers which we often peel off).

Red Peppers: It took a while for the green peppers to take on a bright red, but it was worth the wait. They were beautiful and delicious! We sliced them up to eat raw and warm from the garden.

Tomatillos: Hanging like green lanterns, these were a fun experiment in our garden. We hadn’t had tomatillos before, so of course, we just sliced them up to try them raw. We weren’t a fan of them raw. After a failed attempt at salsa verde (I accidentally made it too spicy to consume without burns to mouth and nose), these became a good donation to the food pantry. Hopefully someone with a knack for salsa-making can enjoy the harvest from this plant until I’m willing to make another attempt. My husband found recipes for strawberry-tomatillo pie and fried tomatillos, so that would be some other fun things to try in the future.

Plain yogurt, milk, strawberries, blueberries, and wheat grass.

Plain yogurt, milk, strawberries, blueberries, and wheat grass.

Wheat Grass: After getting some free seeds from the Madison Children’s Museum at the opening of the Urb Garden, we planted them in a shallow tray of compost and set them on the patio. The grass grew and we cut some off to add to a smoothie. It was ok. Our blender shredded the grass pretty well, but there were still a few strings. And it tasted a bit like grass. But hopefully the health benefits made it worth it.

Ground Cherries: These plants keep them coming slow and steady! It has been nice to pick these little fruits off the ground each day to nibble on. My son especially loves to go outside and look for them.

Large Tomatoes from church seedlings: Despite a late planting, no cage, and some storms that threw the plants to the ground, tomato seedlings from our church’s food pantry garden brought us a pleasant surprise. We were never crazy about large tomatoes from the grocery store, with their tough skin, watery inside, and bland taste. But we figured we ought to try the large tomatoes that grew from these seedlings. Wow! The taste and meaty texture was exceptional. Someone at church thought they might be an heirloom variety. We will definitely be planting more next year and further exploring the world of home-grown tomatoes.

The nasturtium seedling thrived and brought happiness to the garden.

The nasturtium seedling thrived and brought happiness to the garden.

Nasturtium: Although the spicy nasturtium leaves and flowers weren’t a hit at our house, we enjoyed the beautiful flowers in the garden. The nasturtium planted from seed didn’t get nearly as large as the purchased seedling.

Apples: Our red and green apple trees have brought us much joy this apple season. I’ve made a number of batches of applesauce and we have been eating them right off the tree and sharing them with friends. The red apples have quite a few blemishes from pests, but the green apples are mostly perfect. Both are delicious. I’ve been debating trying to prune these trees to keep them short and healthy, but I don’t want to jeopardize the harvest in future years.

Pears: Our pear tree produced about 25 pears this year. I read online that pears don’t ripen on the tree, so I picked the pears green and put them in the refrigerator for about a week or so. Then I placed them on the kitchen counter to ripen for another two weeks. They slowly turned yellow and became soft, at which point, I returned them to the refrigerator. We’ve been eating them raw and enjoying their sweetness. One of the pears had a worm crawling out of it (coddling moth?) which was a little creepy, but generally, they’re mostly blemish- and pest-free. I have debated trying out a recipe with them, such as pear butter, but we’ll probably have them all eaten before I find some time.

A woodpecker pecking at the bamboo trellis over the mostly-finished beans.

A woodpecker pecking at the bamboo trellis over the mostly-finished beans.

As you can see from the harvest totals, much has been picked since my last update:
* Swiss Chard: 338 g
* Carrots: 180 g
* Nasturtium: 9 g
* Peas: 54 g
* Wheat Grass: 18 g
* Zucchini: 2509 g
* Broccoli: 250 g
* Cucumber: 682 g
* Cilantro: 9 g (not all weighed)
* Basil: ? (not weighed)
* Hidatsa Beans (dry): 79 g
* Red Peppers: 276 g
* Sun Gold Tomatoes: 500 g
* Red Sweetie Tomatoes: 545 g
* Ground Cherries: 352 g
* Cherry Tomatoes from church seedlings: 463 g
* Large Tomatoes from church seedlings: 496 g
* Tomatillos: 246 g (more haven’t been picked)
* Green apples: 1014 g (many more to pick and some eaten without being weighed!)
* Red apples: 8396 g
* Pears: 3044 g

This brings the harvest total up to 7075 g (16 lb) for vegetables and 12,454 g (27 lb) for fruit so far. Not bad for our first year with a backyard garden! It’s a minor chore to weigh all the vegetables and fruits as they come in the house and write down the numbers, but it certainly is interesting to see how our gardening efforts are paying off. In the future, it will also be nice to look back and see how our garden has changed from year to year.

Connecting to Natural Food Sources

As the saying goes, “we are what we eat.” For many, this saying helps us to cut down on fatty foods and desserts, but if we dig deeper, what does it really mean in our modern society?

To start answering this question, here is an exercise for you to consider. For a month, write down all the foods you ate: those from the grocery store, restaurants, school meal plans, office catering, candy dishes, church potlucks, and celebrations. Then, look over your list. What are you eating? Usually a common theme quickly surfaces: we really have no idea what we’re eating, how it was made, or where it came from.

It's snack time. Do you know where your muskmelon comes from? Your local farmer's market can offer you a freshly picked, organic selection.

It’s snack time. Do you know where your muskmelon comes from? Your local farmer’s market can offer you a freshly picked, organic selection.

I have serious concerns about the available foods these days. Low prices, uniform appearance, shelf life, bright colors, and marketing slogans have become the driving force behind our food production, despite the fact that our food is becoming less and less natural and healthy for us. Why is this? Does society care more about immediate gratification and the external appearance of their make-up, gadgets, cars, houses, and vacations, than they do about the food they internally consume all day long? Some might argue that natural, healthy foods are too expensive, but the world functions on supply and demand. If people demand fancy cell phones, they are manufactured and everyone totes a cell phone. If people demand natural, healthy foods, they become more available and less expensive. What we have is a simple problem with priorities: do we focus more attention on quick fixes and superficial status symbols, or the natural world and ethical values?

For those who prioritize natural, healthy foods, grocery shopping has become difficult. At your typical grocery store, it’s hard to find organic locally-sourced produce, whole grains, dairy products without rBGH, or meat without hormones and antibiotics. I don’t enjoy looking through item after item on the shelf to find something simple without corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, MSG, dyes, unnecessary sugar and salt, or BHT. Not to mention the mystery about whether the ingredients were treated with unlabeled chemicals or are genetically modified. I’ve managed to meet our food needs by shopping for different products at a variety of sources: rBGH-free local cheese and organic fruit from Metcalfe’s, hygiene products and organic canned goods from Whole Foods, summer vegetables and yogurt from the farmer’s market, nuts from Target or Copp’s, and bread from Clasen’s bakery. But sometimes grocery shopping feels like a week-long tour of the city to meet all our food and budget needs.

Despite the difficulty, it is a worthy endeavor to seek out natural foods and understand where our food comes from. Not only are we caring for our bodies, we are also connecting to nature, supporting the farmers or producers, and taking a stand in our society to say that food ingredients and sources matter. In addition to shopping around for natural foods, here are some other ideas to connect ourselves with natural food sources:

A fresh organic zucchini for your soup sits waiting in your own backyard.

A fresh organic zucchini for your soup sits waiting in your own backyard.

* Instead of purchasing products from unknown companies, why not look up the companies on the internet and see if they offer tours of their farms or factories?
* Instead of filling our Christmas wish lists with shiny gizmos, why not consider asking for a share in a CSA?
* Instead of going to the store for zucchini, why not have some in the garden to pick for our soup?
* Instead of fretting over choices in the bread aisle, why not bake our own homemade loaf and fill our homes with the smell of a bakery?
* Instead of buying mysterious jams, canned goods, ketchup, pickles, or applesauce, why not make and can them ourselves?
* Instead of believing that restaurants have healthy options, why not find out where they get their ingredients from and decide for ourselves?

To go back to our initial saying, “we are what we eat.” If we don’t know how our food was made, can we understand who we are? Are we becoming an unfamiliar, unnatural, chemical, genetically-modified, and marketing creature rather than a human being? I stand up for natural food, for connecting to the source of our food, and for prioritizing nature and ethics as I live my life. In the 21st century it’s a journey filled with difficulty, but I will do what I can, to take care of my family and the earth.

Discovering the Pests on our Apples

With two apple trees and a pear tree in our backyard, I see that pests are quite fond of these fruits. When looking at our apples and pears, spots show us that they have had visitors. Wanting to keep our property natural (without chemical sprays), these pests will likely come to visit every year. But who are they and what are they doing to our fruit?

The Coddling Moth leaves a dark chunk of fiber under the apple.

The Coddling Moth leaves a dark chunk of fiber under the apple.

Today the West Madison Agricultural Research Station had their yearly open house which enabled me to learn more about our apple pests. One of the tents had a fruit intern with some examples of apples with pest markings. He talked about three common pests: the Coddling Moth, the Plum Curculio (beetle), and the Apple Fruit Maggot.

The inside of the apple visited by a Coddling Moth.

The inside of the apple visited by a Coddling Moth.

The Coddling Moth is what you might hear of as the typical apple worm. A moth lays her eggs on the fruit and when they hatch, the larvae burrow into the fruit to eat the core of the apple. The apple tree will usually drop these fruits after sensing the internal damage. It’s a good idea to look for apples with the Coddling Moth marking while doing your early summer thinning and remove them first.

A scab forms on the apple from a Plum Curculio.

A scab forms on the apple from a Plum Curculio.

The Plum Curculio is a beetle that lays its eggs under the skin of stone fruits. Yes, an apple is not a stone fruit, but this little pest doesn’t seem to realize that. As the apple grows, often the eggs are crushed by the growing fruit preventing baby beetles. A scab-like blotch forms on the apple and sometimes the apple is also flat or indented by that spot.

Spots are left behind by the Apple Fruit Maggot.

Spots are left behind by the Apple Fruit Maggot.

The Apple Fruit Maggot also lays it’s eggs inside the fruit. These maggots leave behind sting marks on the outside of the apple and brown railroad-like tracks inside the apple. An indentation is also often observed on the side of the apple.

So, what can be done about these pests?

If you want organic apples, the fruit intern noted that there is a clay that can be applied around the fruit, but it needs to be applied to each fruit often as it washes off in the rain and cracks as the apples grow. An easier solution on the Vegetable Gardener website is to tie brown paper lunch bags over the apples when they’re young. It sounds like there are also pheremone traps that can be purchased to catch some of the pests.

The fruit intern emphasized that although these pests cause cosmetic damage, these apples are still edible. It seems that nowadays most people are used to blemish-free grocery store apples and are quite disconnected from an understanding of their food sources. The most benign markings scare people away. But the fruit intern noted that these apples were just fine to eat. In fact, he planned to eat these unmarketable apples, every bite of them, after the open house was over.

Now that I know who the pests are that are visiting, I’m less afraid of what’s in our apples. But until I come to terms with eating worms, I think I might still compost the parts of the apple with spots and brown trails.

Clearing the Way for Strawberries by the Patio

Just off of our kitchen through a patio door sits our 16’ x 16’ patio. This area has a turtle sandbox and a container on wheels with my kids’ swiss chard and carrots. In the mulched area surrounding the concrete, the previous owners had planted two variegated dogwoods, two daylilies, a rhododendron, and four rose bushes. There are also a few small variegated hostas beneath the dogwoods. The patio is a pleasant area, but not the most practical use of space.

When I gaze across the yard to our vegetable garden, I often think how nice it would be if it could change places with the patio garden: the perennials could be across the yard and the fresh fruits and vegetables could be right outside our door (if only our patio had full sun). Not only would it be more convenient, but the rhododendron and roses weren’t looking so good. When we moved in last summer during a drought, the rhododendron leaves turned a reddish-brown color and curled up into claw-like hands. The roses may have been chewed down by rabbits, and all that remained were thick sticks poking out of the ground with sharp thorns.

Some of the former rose bushes along the west side of our patio, as seen last summer.

Some of the former rose bushes along the west side of our patio, as seen last summer.

I’ve never been a fan of roses (more on this later), but when my son accidentally stepped on one with his bare feet early in the spring, I started mentally dreaming about replacing the rhododendron and roses with something edible. As the weather continued to warm, the rhododendron started to grow new leaves on one side and I appreciated it’s fight to survive. A couple of the rose bushes grew a few paltry leaves, but during strawberry season, I knew I would much rather have berries in that garden space than roses. Should I need a rose, the previous owner of our house had planted plenty more in the front yard.

It was gratifying ripping out those four rose bushes. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve never been a fan of roses. For the 10 minutes that I pulled up those patio rose bushes, I almost felt like a superhero, fighting the malicious desires of society for superficial beauty. Roses, with their bright colors and large perfect swirls, are flamboyant, showy, ostentatious… luring people in with lustful desire. And then what is beneath those flowers? The rose’s true self: devil-tinted leaves, sharp pruned-back sticks, and poking thorns. Pushing a shovel into the ground and torqueing out the rose bushes, roots and all, I was on a crusade to replace evil with edibles.

The area that the four rose bushes occupied is on the west side of our patio and is about 2 feet by 18 feet, bordered by landscape timbers. It receives only partial sun, being shaded occasionally throughout the day by a large honey locust tree in the middle of our backyard. I read that it’s good to prepare the soil a year ahead of time for berries, so I intend to loosen the soil and work in some manure or compost this summer. Then I’ll have some time to research which variety of strawberries to select. My hope is that next spring, some young strawberry plants will enjoy making their home here.

Picking fresh strawberries at Appleberry Farm, just outside of Madison, WI.

Picking fresh strawberries at Appleberry Farm, just outside of Madison, WI.

It makes sense to grow strawberries at home. Strawberries are a good source of antioxidants, but they last only a couple days in the refrigerator. Buying organic strawberries at the grocery store can be expensive and non-organic strawberries have high pesticide residue. We enjoy going to local u-pick farms (like Appleberry Farm) to buy strawberries, but then we need to process them all in the same short timeframe. It would be nice to have some available right in our backyard, to be even closer to our food and to pick them when we want to eat them.

If you have any advice about preparing soil for strawberries or a good variety for partial sun, I look forward to reading your comments!