Nature’s Green Butter: our avocado harvest

Our avocado crop increased 300% this year.  By that I mean that we went from 2 avocados last year to 6 avocados this year.  Our avocado tree is the spoiled baby of the backyard, and it is full of surprises.  When we moved into our home in May 2010, seeing an avocado tree, albeit stunted from years of neglect, was a delight.  Once you know what an avocado tree looks like, they are easy to spot.  First are the two-toned leaves, a dark green, glossy as a magazine page top coupled with a wallflower tan beige underneath.  Avocado trees always have an abundance of leaves making them fun to lie underneath and stare up into the Jackson Pollock chaos of it all.  These trees do not have bark but instead tout a green-yellow nakedness dotted with rough brown patches that the sun has “burnt.”

When we got married, Kris and I gave my mom an avocado tree, planting it, mistakenly, in late August 2009.  It did not survive the winter.  Having naked bark means they are very susceptible to too low of temperatures unless they are planted in a pot and brought inside for the winter.  My mom was very excited about that tree, and it broke her heart to see its once green branches turn black as if overtaken by frostbite.

She was the first to explore the backyard of our new house, and the first to discover an avocado tree hanging on for dear life behind a massive wall of thistles.  After we massacred the thistles, we discovered that the tree had two fragile fruits, hanging in its lower branches.  So, like Marlin in Finding Nemo left with one last egg in the movie’s opening scene, we took those fruits, ripened them and planned how we could save the avocado tree the following Spring.

This tree is the avocado tree that carries all hope.

And it has delivered 300%.

Six avocados this year.  A record!  Since avocados do not ripen on the tree, I picked them and wrapped them up in a brown paper bag, giving them about 2 weeks to soften and darken in color.

Here’s a close up.  I wish you could scratch and sniff the screen because it smelled earthy, sweet, and ripe.

After the fruit had ripened, we were left with a divisive dilemma.  Kris wanted to make something with them and found all sorts of recipes in an effort to get me to add them into something.  Avocado Pie.  Avocado Ice Cream (I admit this one tempted me).  Avocado Mousse.  (My husband has a sweet tooth).  My instinct told me that by cooking our first avocados in a recipe, the flavor would be lost with all the other ingredients.  Avocados are usually added for texture and for vegan creaminess factor.  I wouldn’t budge.  I wanted something where the avocado would be the star, not a texture agent.

So, we smashed up 1 avocado into pure essence.

And we anti-climatically used it to top some cheese and crackers.  The most flavorful cheese and crackers I have ever eaten.  I swear, I was eating nature’s green butter.


Monday’s Photo: Oranges from the Backyard

It’s amazing what a little water, some insecticide, and pruning can do for a tree.  These fresh oranges are from a tree that a year ago I didn’t even want to walk by for fear of being attacked by insect residue.

This poor orange tree looked haggard when we moved into our place in May 2010.  First, it was clothed in webs from spider mites.  The webs took over the tree, making it look like a net had been placed around it.  Very Gross.  Second, whiteflies or aphids (not sure which, most likely both) excreted a sticky substance on the back of the leaves and dirt and dust in the air collected on the stickiness, making the leaves appear not green but black and white.  Third, it was brimming with soooo many oranges, many which were long past their prime.

When we tried to eat these “fruits,” we spit them out because they were more cardboard than orange.  A trip to my local family-owned nursery helped me figure out a tactical plan to save the tree from infestation.

First we sprayed an insecticide, an All Seasons Spray Oil that connected to our hose.  I don’t know why I said we, Kris did this, while I shut the sliding glass back door and stayed clear.  Then Kris pruned off some of the lower branches which had withered fruit on them.  Immediately (this is not an exaggeration) the tree looked taller, healthier.  The leaves were green again!

Then I started watering it once every 2-3 weeks, a deep soak.  Whenever I remembered.

Now when we use these oranges they are sweet and juicy.  From time to time when we cut one open it is dry and a light yellow color instead of a brilliant orange, so we just head back outside and grab another one with our fruit picker.  The ratio of juicy fruit to dry fruit used to be 1 juicy fruit for every 4-5 dry ones, now that is pleasantly reversed.

I can garden!!

P.S. I used this fresh orange juice in this recipe.

Our No-Front Lawn Experiment Part 2: Ripping out the Sod

This is part 3 of a (highly chronologically disorganized) series about turning our front yard into a French style potager garden.  In regular people’s terms, making our front yard a kitchen garden.

One of the most important things we learned in this process is an ever present question for young, new homeowners: how do we figure out what to spend money on and what to save and do ourselves?

Here’s the overview post of the process.
Here’s how we planned out the design.
This post is about ripping out the sod.

Can we even call our “grass” sod?  It was weeds disguised as grass, lots of crab grass or Bermuda grass, I’m really not sure which.  I learned this- if the grass has a roots system that looks more like a tree’s root system, woody, thick, seemingly impenetrable- then there’s a problem, and what’s there is not normal grass.

In an attempt to save money, Kris started by trying to rip the sod out by hand, thinking it wouldn’t be that difficult.  This was before he realized the incredibly evolved root system of Bermuda grass.  In 30 minutes he got one chunk out, a line along the sidewalk.

Trust me, there is progress in this picture; it’s along the bottom edge of the grass.

Exhausted, he came back in, “Let’s rent a sod cutter,” he states.  “It’ll only be about $60.”  I agreed, realizing that for some things, machines work much better than slaving away out of cheapness.

Luckily, we have a tool rental Home Depot by our house and got the sod cutter for a 4 hour rental period.  We used it for less than 1 hour, but 4 hours was the minimum.

The machine cut through the thick ground like a sword.  It took Kris 30 minutes to get a one foot long line along the edge.  With the sod cutter, he finished the rest of the area in less than 20.

Starting at the outer edges, he circled his way around a labyrinth prayer, concentric squares into the next section.  Of course he was being extra cautious by the automatic sprinklers.  Not like we’d used them anyways- who’d want to give weeds water.

And then, there it was half of our front yard, naked as a baby.   Exposed for all our neighbors’ confusion and gossip, a symbol of the new young neighbor couple’s insanity.

Still clueless new homeowners, we thought we may be able to get rid of the sod by putting up an ad on Craigslist.  FREE SOD.  Apparently many people responded and 3 actually came to our house to check it out.

“It looks a little too dried out for me,” said the first.

“Not as much as I thought it would be, but thanks,” said the second.

The third curious person stopped by about 8 pm,  just as I was returning home from work.  I was slightly freaked out since this man in a truck seemed to be staring right at my house as I was getting out of my car and walking up the path.

“You here about the sod,” says Kris, coming out of the house to meet him.

“Yeah, but I want to take a look first,” he said smartly.  “I’ve been re-doing my sister’s back yard for free with things I’ve found on Craig’s List.”  Walking up behind me, he lists off the concrete, wood, and other findings he’s managed to get from the freebie listings.  He stops at the edge of the path, surveying the half of the yard that remains and the other half, rolled up into neat piles for one lucky person looking for grass.

“This is mierda,” he says, using the Spanish term. “Ess-Eightch-Eye-Tee.”  He looks at us as if we were idiots.  Even though it’s nighttime, his annoyed mockery is palpable.  “This is pure crabgrass.  Weeds.”  He laughs at our naïveté and his waste of time.  “Did anybody really offer to take this?”

“A few people come out to see it, but they thought it was too brown,” explains Kris, starting to doubt our grass’s nature.

“You shouldn’t give this crap away to people.”  Then the businessman’s voice comes out, after all, maybe this wasn’t a complete waste of his time.  “Thirty dollars and I’ll haul it away for you.”  Ever thrifty, we decline the offer.  My husband decided he’d take the weed-sod to the dump himself the next day while he went to get some free manure at a horse stable.  We thought that since it was green waste there wouldn’t be a dump fee.

The next day, Kris takes the day off work to dump the sod and shovel a different kind of ess-eightch-eye-tee, horse manure, for soil development.  The dump fee for the grass-weeds-sod-whatever it was, $36, not to mention the couple of hours to shovel, haul, and toss.  Thankfully the horse manure was free.



An unexpected guest in the garden

As a novice gardener, I take joy and pride in my plants’ abundance.  I get very protective of them too. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve had one uninvited, unrelenting guest who won’t stop coming back.  I admit, I haven’t been a gracious hostess.  I hiss, yell, act unladylike and probably freak out my neighbors to no avail.Forgive the grittiness of the photo; I took it through the “filter” of my dining room window.

I have 3 mantras that I repeat to myself whenever it comes around: do not be fooled, do not fall prey, do not be deceived.

Do not be fooled by it’s beautiful tabby grey coloring with white marks that look like knee-high boots.  This is not Puss in Boots.

Do not fall prey to it’s small cuteness; it’s size tells me it is probably an older kitten.  Disclaimer: I use the term “kitten” loosely; it has a connotation of adorability that this unwanted guest only partially evokes in me.

Do not be deceived by its mew anytime it sees you.  It is a wail that begs, please don’t hurt me; I just want to be loved (and poop in your garden).

Let’s get real here, that is what it’s most likely doing, pooping.  It thinks that my garden is a giant litterbox- it does have a bunch of horse manure in it, so I can understand its thinking.

I’ve sprayed the hose at it (4 times), set my best garden helper, Titania, on it once (I gave the cat a little head start before I fully unleashed Titania to chase it down).  Still, despite the abuse, it returns, meows at me, and my defenses are starting to crumble.

The fact that it keeps coming back means I see it at least once a week.  The thing is starting to grow on me.  I admire its determination or stupidity; embracing paradox is an important life skill.  It is kinda cute and dainty, and it has such a plaintive meow, even after getting spraying with the hose.  That meow makes me feel guilty.  The cat still accepts me despite my abuse.  Just between me and you- I may start putting out food for it.

5 Potager designs

New Year’s Resolution: Rip out grass in front yard and replace with something better.

“We got to design it first, honey,” my husband tells me, curbing my enthusiasm.

“What do you mean?  We can’t just rip it out and then plant the plants?” I respond in my most logical convincing voice.

“No.”  He’s onto my tricks, probably because I use them all the time.  “Don’t you want a path, so you can access all your plants?”

“Well, yeah.”

“It’ll also help so you don’t trample on them.”  I nod my head in agreement and start wildly researching French Potager designs.  Remember, a potager is just a fancy French way of saying a kitchen garden.  I found the four most common designs, then Kris and I made a few variations on a theme and came out with our final design which is at the end of this post accompanied with a few current photos of how wildly the plants are growing.

Of course one option is to have no path and just step over plants as you weed, harvest or tend.  This is the option for all the careful people of the world.

Paths are a necessity for me.  I need a safe place to step that won’t harm my plants, although, when my plants are so overgrown they usurp the path I have to get a little creative.For all designs, green= path and brown=garden space 🙂

1.  Classic Raised beds.  This is the most common form of potagers, a mixed assortment of square or rectangular raised beds.Similar to one of the most famous French potagers at a castle called Villandry.

Photo by Manfred Heyde from Wikimedia Commons

It is also the design for the gardens at a famous Yountville restaurant.We snuck by them one day driving back from a Sonoma day trip.

Option #2: Keyhole designs allow circular access to plants.You can have many or one large one.

Option #3: 4 squares or Cross

Option #4: The “X,” similar to the cross, just angled to create triangular garden spaces instead of rectangular ones.

Finally, our design, option #5 a variation on the keyhole design.

And now…at the end of July, everything is rampant.  Love it!

Kris took this photo

The vines (acorn squash, honeydew melon, and ambrosia cantaloupe) are definitely the most expansive.

This one too.

Stay tuned patient souls for the continuing process of turning our front yard into a French kitchen garden.

Our No Front Lawn Experiment

One of our New Year’s Resolutions, and I quote, was “Rip up front yard and replace with something better.”  Who needs grass?  It’s like botox, once you start, you have to keep it up.

Here’s what we started with:Lots of beautiful roses that burst in the summer=pollinating insects.

Don’t be fooled, as we were, by the green color of what is posing as grass.  It’s really just a bunch of weeds and evil, invasive bermuda grass.  Ickk!

So, off with their heads, I mean roots!

Idealist that I am, I thought this would be a quick weekend project.  We’d just rip up the grass, then plant some cool vegetables, et voila, as the French would say, our garden.

Thank God I have a husband who actually thinks things through and likes to problem solve.

He took a more rational approach to my idealistic one.  He went through about 3 different path designs before finally settling on the one that would optimize access to the different areas of the front yard.  What can I say, he’s an engineer, this is what he’s been trained to do, optimize space and utility.

Here’s our final design:So far this is half of the front yard, and the rest will surely follow.  In May we were able to rip up this part, the right side of our yard, a 16’ by 17’ space with lots of sun.

This would be our space for a French potager. For non-garden people, or wannabes like me, a potager is just an uppity way of saying French-style kitchen garden with cooking herbs, vegetables, and complementary flowers to bring in the beneficial insects.

Here are the stages of the No-Front Lawn Experiment, which took us 3 weekends with the help of a few sucker fabulous friends.

  1. Plan out a design.
  2. Rip out the sod.
  3. Find cheap or better yet, free, manure and compost to enrich the soil.
  4. Create your path.
  5. Plant your potager.

Stay tuned for more about our No-Front Lawn Experiment.

Operation Roots Not Fruits

Way back in February or March, I made a post about My First Foray into Edible Landscaping, planting 3 blueberry bushes in my front yard.  They took well to the space and started to produce pink and white bell shaped flowers.  I don’t know where I read it from, but for some reason, I got it into my brain that the first year I plant blueberries, or any berry for that matter, I should cut off the flowers so the plants put their energy into establishing roots.  I called it Operation Roots not Fruits.  Against my better judgement, I cut off about 10 innocent white flowers and 20 or so bright pink ones.  Roots not Fruits I kept assuring myself.

Time passed.  A few more rebellious late flowers came out.  I either forgot about them or was too traumatized from the first (mind you, the only) experience.  I didn’t want to behead my blueberries anymore.  Operation Roots Not Fruits was an emotional failure.

Then, this past weekend, Kris and I were walking out to the driveway, passing the blueberry bushes, and what do you know, 3 blueberries sat there, winking at me.

Because I was denied being able to touch things that excited me in stores as a child, I stopped in my tracks, mesmerized, reached out my hand and touched it like Dory with the baby jellyfish in Finding Nemo.  They were soooo cute.  The blueberries, not the jellyfish (pronoun antecedent clarification for all the English teachers).

Suddenly, the one I was touching collapsed in my hand.

I swear, I did not pick it; it FELL into my hand, ripe and squishy.

Obviously I couldn’t just put it back on the plant; you break it, you buy it, right?  So, I showed Kris my accidentally acquired blueberry and eat it.  I would have shared it with him, but really who’s going to cut 1 blueberry in half?

The other 2.  Well…I ate those two one afternoon while Kris was working.  Not before I snapped a few pictures though.

Lessons from the Garden: Mystery

We have a few trees in our yard that the previous homeowners, for one reason or another decided to completely WHACK.

First we have an orange tree.You can see what’s growing in the back.

Next, a peach or nectarine, we’re not exactly sure since its fruit isn’t much more than a large pit surrounded by taut skin.And finally, our mystery tree extraordinaire.What you’ve probably noticed is that even though the entire tree has been cut down, more keeps a comin’.  The orange tree is a solid 12 feet tall.

The peach (or nectarine, whatever it is) has what seems like a million suckers coming out of its root stock.  Kris insists that we keep it one more year just to “See what happens.”

Then we have the mystery tree which last summer bloomed brilliant white flowers, no fruit. This year, the same stunning cloak of white flowers. I thought it was just a flowering tree, which is pretty darn cool in its own right, but this year…it has shockingly produced fruit.

Fruit that for the longest time mystified us.

First I thought it was a cherry tree.  The bark seemed reddish.  the leaves were oval with wave-like edging.  The fruits dangled from the branches, prompting much excitement.Then, the fruits got bigger.  And bigger.

I thought they were apples because they kept expanding.  Oh, we were excited to possibly have green Granny Smith apples.  So perfect for baking.

We left for a 2 week visit to Kris’ family in Nebraska, returned, and lo and behold, our it-was-a-cherry-now-its-an-apple tree has finally established its true identity.Bright red-violet plums.  Beautiful tangy plums that our dog Titania can eat if she sits back on her haunches and jumps up to pick them off of the low hanging branches.  She loves them.  Kris and I love them.  And finally, the mystery has been solved.

My First Strawberries

I have exactly 4 round, ripe, red strawberries, each with a white and green hat on top.  They remind me of southern ladies going to church, each with a different body shape.  The first is the petite pear shape, slim top, round bottom with full hips.  The second is the tall, thin one towering over the others.  The third is the top-heavy lady with the small hips.  Last, is the full-figured maven with the commanding presence.

Lots of potential fruits here

This is my first time growing strawberries which are low to the ground.  I’ve been worried about fruits laying on the soil accumulating extra moisture.  Two of my strawberries have circles where the skins sink in like mini potholes.  My fear of damage could be why I possibly picked them too early (hence the white tops).

A little leeway here, I am a novice at the is-this-ripe-question.  All signs pointed to ready.  They are supple to the touch.  Their smell is like candy, and that red color reminds me of a pair of sexy high heels that I’m too afraid to wear in public.  That’s how I knew it was time to pick; they screamed for attention.

Only 4 strawberries.  Not enough for any recipe that I know of.  No matter.  For now I want their essence: pure, unadulterated strawberry sweetness.

A Dinner of Contradictions

This post is both a confession and a celebration, so I hope you will both forgive me and be happy for me simultaneously.  I made a dinner of contradictions consisting of my first, fresh lettuces and a frozen dinner with microwave rice.  I’ve moved toward growing my own food and creating an edible landscape, but I still heavily rely on convenience food, namely frozen items.  This plate made me laugh because it represents 2 contrasting philosophies.  On the one hand, fresh homegrown and seasonal, and on the other, frozen, ready-made.  In the modern world, they can co-exist, and as a working professional, I am grateful they do.It’s the end of May, and my mesclun mix  lettuce seeds have been rising to meet the world.  It took my arugula a little bit of time to start, until I discovered why they were not sprouting up as wildly as the mesclun.Going out to my backyard raised bed is exhilarating since the plants are doing surprisingly well, despite my inconsistent watering, lack of discipline, and forgetfulness.  I’ve since added dog-protection to the raised bed.Mesclun is lovely for its various textures and shapes.Rich, burgundy  romaine.Wild, frizzy parsley-like something whose name I don’t know.I love this one because of its heart shape and soft, spiky edges.This one had small bumps growing on it, and I sure hope we weren’t eating insect eggs.And of course, the ever-reliable arugula with its wavy shape.I may have “cheated” with my 75% frozen dinner, but the salad burst with the spicy, slightly bitter flavor of dark greens.  Delicious!