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.

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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.

Starting the Spring Garden

It’s Spring…the bees are buzzing, the birds are fluffing their feathers, flowers are displaying everything they have for the insect world to pollinate.  I love Spring for its sense of wonder and expectancy, and this year, I wanted to join the party in the form of planting a few cold season crops.  Of course here in Northern California, Zone 8-9 for all you garden buffs (don’t judge, I have no idea really what the zones means), we don’t have a “real” Winter, so technically speaking, I could have done as one of my neighbors did and planted a Winter garden of peas and lettuces, maybe next year.  After my first ever long run, I went to my favorite nursery, Alden Lane, to pick up a few plants.  I was only supposed to get a couple of strawberry plants, but left with ranaculus, anemone, and sugar snap peas.

OK, yes I cheated with a few plants, buying small cell packs of sugar snap peas and strawberries, but the rest have been planted from seeds.

Here’s what I put in my raised bed so far…

Strawberries
My first time ever having these perennials.  After several weeks of debating, I decided to plant them in my raised bed.  At first I was afraid of making a commitment to them; each plant will probably last for 4-6 years in that one spot.

Strawberries...cant wait for these

Sugar Snap Peas
Some of my all time favorite snacks.  What’s not to love about their crisp snappiness and bright green shell.

Sugar Snap Peas

Wild Arugula
Also called rocket for how fast it grows.  Love this stuff in salads, on top of pizzas, lightly wilted in pasta dishes, as something to just bathe in regularly (just kidding, for the record, I don’t think arugula has any beauty benefits).

Arugula spouts came out in a week

Mesclun Mix
Actually, I planted this last year, and the mixed lettuces came out delicious.  These are fun because the seed mix includes 3-4 different types, textures, and shapes.

Mesclun mix also came out in about 1 week

I also planted 3 nasturtium plants, maybe 2.  I don’t remember and I didn’t mark the places where I put the seeds.  I’m also not 100% sure if my arugula picture is arugula; it may be my mesclun mix.  Note to self: label what gets planted.

Lemon Curd

What would you do if you had over 120 lemons freshly picked from your backyard tree?

Yes, my husband is known for his extremes, 20 lemons obviously was not enough, and he had to get 5 times as many as I would have.  So, yeah, we’re kind of overwhelmed with lemons here in NorCal.  Most of them Kris juiced and made 2 trays of lemon juice ice cubes, but there are still so many left.

So many lemons!!

Well, since we both left for a few days, upon returning, I noticed that many of them had started to grow mold, so I tossed out about 15 of them.  Throwing away some of them didn’t really make a dent in the amount, so I figured the only way to use them up would be a recipe requiring a lot of lemon juice.  Note to self (and Kris) let’s not harvest immediately before we go on trips.

Some friends of ours invited us for a Sunday Brunch, so I thought I’d try my hand at making lemon curd and bring some strawberries to accompany it.  This recipe comes from a Northern California Cookbook called California Fresh Harvest A Seasonal Journey Through Northern California by the Junior League of Oakland-East Bay, Inc. This book has recipes from a lot of famous California chefs, including Alice Waters, among others.  For my first try at a recipe from this book, Kris and I are vastly impressed, read it’s absolutely delicious.

Hints (from my mistakes): zest the lemons before you juice them and to help aid the straining process use a wooden spoon.

Ingredients:

Lemon Curd Ingredients

1 and 1/2 cup sugar; 1 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice (about 10 of our small lemons); 1 stick of butter; zest of 6 lemons (hint: zest before you juice, otherwise you’ll make my stupid mistake); and 8 eggs (4 whole eggs, plus 4 yolks)

Step 1: Break 4 eggs into a bowl.  Then separate the other four.  Add only the yolks and save the egg whites for an omelet another day.

4 whole eggs plus 4 yolks

Step 2: Combine the eggs, sugar and lemon zest in a medium saucepan.

Yum!!

Whisk to combine.

Add the lemon juice and whisk to combine.

Step 3:  Cook the eggs, zest, sugar, and juice over medium low heat.  Stir constantly with a wooden spoon to prevent sugar from burning on the bottom of the pot.

Step 4: Once the mixture is warmed, never boiling or simmering, cut the butter into chunks and add to the pot.

Step 5: Continue to stir the curd, while it thickens.  You have to stir constantly to prevent burns on the bottom.  Once it’s able to coat the back of your wooden spoon, it’s ready.

Step 6: Strain the curd into a bowl.  It’s thick and the zest will clog up the bottom, so lightly move a wooden spoon in the strainer to speed up this process, or you could just stand there for 1/2 hour while gravity does it for you.

Straining gets rid of all the zest and thick chunks because we want light luscious lemon curd that’s smooth and silky.

Thanks for the flavor, but that's all we need you for

Step 7: Place your bowl inside a larger bowl containing an ice bath.  This will help quicken the cooling process.  Oophs…I forgot the picture, but in the above one you can kinda see my bowl within a bowl set up.  Just be careful not to get water into your beautiful, smooth lemon curd.  When it is lukewarm, place plastic wrap over the curd (to prevent a yucky film from forming on top) and place in the fridge until you need it.  The curd will thicken in the fridge as it continues to cool, and you’ll be left with what looks like a lemon pudding that tastes so tangy and sweet at the same time.

Here’s how we ate it the next morning.  Kris made waffle-cakes (we don’t have a waffle maker since ours broke from overuse), I put lemon curd and fresh cut, first harvest strawberries on top.  I love weekend breakfasts!

Other uses for lemon curd: eat it plain with fruit, place it in a tart and cover with fruit, fill a pie crust with it and add meringue on top or fresh whipping cream, put it between layer cake, the possibilities are endless.

The Avocado Tree That Carries All Hope

A gorgeous California February weekend demanded that I spend it outside in my backyard, working on the garden.

One major task was adding fertilizer to our avocado tree. Of all the trees on our property, this is the one that we are most excited about.  By we I mean myself, Kris, my mom, my neighbor Kathy, my godmother, and all of our friends who know we have this tree. We’ve eaten its two previous fruits, and this year, we all want more.

Of course, there were plenty of weeds around it, and I didn’t want weeds sucking up my expensive organic fertilizer. Titania helped out in her usual fashion; while I went ripping away at the bermuda grass et al, she sun bathed in her favorite spot.

 

Sunbather Extraordinaire

It took forever to get this picture because every time I came close, she’d look up and give me her big pit bull smile.

 

Smiling in the sun

Meanwhile, I worked on clearing space around the avocado tree in order to add fertilizer.  I noticed that the bermuda grass and other weeds were coming out quite easily, then discovered that it was because of landscape fabric put down by the previous owners.  In my zeal to get rid of the weeds, I’d ripped the fabric up.  I had to fertilize the tree, not the dirt above the landscaping fabric.  My hoe and gardening claw dug into the rich soil, full of earthworms and ants, creating a little circle around the tree.

 

Ooophs, ripped the fabric

Here’s the fertilizer I used, recommended by my local nursery.

 

E. B. Stone Organic Citrus Fertilizer

I staged it on top of the weeds I’d pulled, hoping that someone (besides me) would appreciate the irony.  I know the nursery probably just recommended the most expensive one; we’ll see how it does. A lot of people have high hopes for this tree.  Who wouldn’t? Look at these cute little buds; these are going to become flowers, and eventually…fruit.

 

Lots of Little Buds

I bought one 4 pound box, thinking I could use it for the many trees around our house (2 giant orange trees, an almond, a lemon, an apricot, a peach, and a cherry).  Then, I read the directions which explained that for a 5 year old avocado or citrus tree (I had to guess the age), I’d need to apply 4 pounds every time I fertilized!  The whole box for just one application!  Then, on top of that, I’m supposed to fertilize 3 times a year.  Is this normal?!  I am just flabbergasted (love that word).

I ended up following directions because, well…because I’m a teacher and appreciate when my students follow mine.  I mixed in the entire box, four pounds of fertilizer, around the tree.  We’ll see how she does (although I’m not sure if it is a male or female avocado tree).

Then, of course, Titania comes over to sniff out what I’m doing.  While my back is turned, mixing the powder into the soil, she grabs a quick lick of the fertilizer’s box.  I freak out, hoping it won’t poison her, good thing it’s organic.  When I look at the ingredients, I see that the first one is blood meal.  Go figure she’d want to lick that.

I decided I need to protect the fertilizer, not just from the dog, but from weeds that want to leech off of the richness I just added to the ground.  At this moment I wished I hadn’t ripped the landscape fabric so much.  I didn’t have any mulch, but what I did have was a lot of cardboard.

 

From a recent IKEA purchase

I’d just cut it, lay it around the tree, and remove it when I needed to water.  The size was perfect, and I didn’t even have to do my usual measuring by trail and error.

 

A resourceful substitute for mulch

Knowing that Titania would still be able to burrow her head under the cardboard, I found some bricks by the orange tree and moved them to use as weights.  Perfect dog/weed barrier.

The perfect makeshift mulch

Naturally, the dog keeps sniffing out the area with a guilty look on her face.  Hopefully my yelling and reprimanding plus the cardboard barrier will stand up to her pit bull stubbornness.

 

 

First Foray into Edible Landscaping

Edible landscaping is a term made famous especially by the writings of Rosalind Creasy in her book, Edible Landscaping.  She starts from the premise that we can have a beautifully landscaped yard that also provides food.  In other words, we don’t have to limit ourselves to grass, roses and the like for our yard.  Vegetable plants, fruits, herbs, and edible flowers are just as beautiful and have the added benefit of providing deliciousness.

Our new house came in the “classically” 1950s landscaped grassy front yard with a wall of roses around the perimeter.  Don’t get me wrong, the roses are beautiful, and a couple of them actually smell divine as well, but I want a yard that is both beautiful and bountiful, so I’ve become a follower of the edible landscaping movement, the no-front-lawn revolution.  While we still have a front lawn, getting rid of it a post for another day, we are slowly making progress on parts of our yard.

First of all, after being abandoned for several years, the yard was completely overrun, wild, a suburban jungle.  We’ve been working on clearing the neglected yard, and this weekend, I worked on clearing out a front flowerbed to prepare a space for 3 blueberry bushes.

The bed contained iris plants that had developed a bulbous root system where each plant that I dug out had an underground body of bulbs connected to each other.  The hoe proved useless, the plants’ rhizome root systems were the size of my face, sometimes larger, so I got out a shovel and worked on finding the elusive bottom of these monstrosities.

Some older bulbs had been completely eviscerated, leaving a crumbling, leathery carcass full of holes, attached to the newer leech-like bulbs.  As beautiful as these flowers are, their rhizome-bulb-root system is a hydra, expanding exponentially, sucking the guts out of the previous year’s growth, growing 3 or 4 new plants from each one.  A little research helped me to understand that the irises must have been attacked by iris borers, worm-like voracious insects that eat away at the rhizome (the bulb/root system).   Left naked, marked up with dozens of small holes, the rhizome rotted and the plant died, but not before it let out one last attempt at prolonging its DNA, in the form of several bulbs connected to the disintegrated one.  These plants are hearty and have a will of steal.

However, they were no match for my shovel, and my own will of landscape transformation.  So, bed cleared of old irises, a few cyclamens also, I added an acidic soil preparation, since that’s what blueberry plants prefer.   Two bags worth of soil helped put back what I’d taken out via the irises.  Then, randomly out of nowhere, the sunny sky starts to rain on me.   A light sprinkle at first, and looking at the half sunny sky, I thought the rain would pass in a few minutes.  Ten minutes later, my sweatshirt soaked, the sky ambushed by rain clouds, my attempts at planting the blueberries were thwarted.  I place the three containers in their respective spots above ground for the sake of imagination, clean up, and go back inside for a late lunch.

My first foray into edible landscaping has been postponed for now, but the area is ready, the soil prepped, all that’s missing is putting in the plants, oh, and three years of waiting for the plants to heartily produce.