03 Sep

If you can’t stand the heat, you’re not a nightshade

This was a hell of a hot summer, with weeks in the 90’s and hundreds. That helped some crops and definitely inhibited others.

The good: After 8 lousy years of tomato production (lost mostly to blight), we have more healthy fruit than we can keep track of: Early Girl, Oregon Spring, and Black Krim slicers; Romas (a heirloom variety) for paste and soup, and Sungold cherry tomatoes to take over their corner of the garden (and be delicious). I love tomatoes, Debby is allergic and eats them sparingly, and Sophie and Noah only like them in salsa or soup. Fortunately, they keep if cooked down or dried and packed, and our older kids and parents like them.  The tomatoes are all growing in the 2 keyhole gardens. And our peppers–a poblano and a long sweet red variety–are still producing, with only a few burnt fruit. They’re also in the keyhole gardens.

Eggplant are the Japanese variety, slender and softskinned, not as hardy but also not as bitter as the rotund variety. We’re like a lot of people: we like eggplant but can only eat so much. The two plants are very productive–especially the plant in the keyhole garden.

It’s also the season of the winter banana squash–two plants of apparent Amazonian stock rebred for the PNW took over the front garden, including sending two runners up over the bean frame (7 feet high) while we were on vacation for a week. I took hedge clippers to some of the vines just to keep them in check. The squash took that as a personal challenge to grow faster. So, needless to say, we have banana squash and need a song for it. Pounds and pounds of it–very tasty, but we’re pressed to preserve it in the recent heat.

We grew a new summer squash this year that we’ll grow again: a light skinned “Sweet Gourmet” zuke that’s rotund from the get go and even when it puts on a bit a weight (e.g., the zucchini club) is much less woody than the dark skinned type. We stir fry and steam it, make “noodles” with it (a really nice replacement for starched noodles), and of course shred it for backing.

Not the season for onions, beans, or carrots. At least, for us. Foliage was very healthy, but not much fruit. I don’t think we fertilized the onions enough or adequately protected the carrots from ground pests. Beans are the long purple variety. We’ve grown them in the past and couldn’t keep up. This year, we’ve picked enough for perhaps two meals. With the weather cooling, maybe we’ll still get a reasonable crop.

We always grow a big set of kale and chard from our favorite local nursery. It’s a combo of black and curly kale (the green, not the Russian), and, well, chard. The curly is succeptible to aphid conventions, even with spray. We also like it the least. Next year we’ll stick with the black kale (long, dark green rumply leaves) and chard.

Basil was fawltless and is still producing. We grew sweet, Genovese, a purple big leafy variety that our nursery person forced on us, and a variegated variety. The latter two don’t produce seedheads and will probably last longest. Both are fine in salads and soups, but neither really suits us for pesto. Cilantro also did well and is still producing.

First in the ground, our sugar peas did well, giving us tasty snappers into July.

Biggest disappointment: pumpkins. Usually we can’t keep up with them. Our 4 Cinderella pumpkin plants were anemic and never produced fruit. We had one volunteer with healthy vines that produced exactly one, average sized fruit.

Fruit from trees and bushes: purple plum trees were loaded, but in the heat ripened too fast, turning the half the fruit into juice bombs while we were camping. We shared the crop with the neighbors, who decided to see if they could make a bottle or two of wine from the riper fruit. Figs ate up the heat, as you’d expect. We always get a respectable first crop, although usually the second crop starts and then fails to ripen as the weather turns. This year has been warm enough for both crops. Blueberries did fine. They don’t like heat spikes (which are more typical)–so consistent heat during fruit season may have helped them stabilize.

Next year, it looks like another hot summer. If I remember, I’m going to try ginger and tumeric, for the heck of it.


04 Sep

Garden Report, 2014-09-03

It’s been a short long summer (short on days, long on heat). In short, the keyhole gardens have done well overall, with the kale, chard, and tomatoes highly productive (pounds upon pounds of healthy tasty maters from three plants), the single eggplant has delivered twice what we usually get, and the purple bush beans were reasonably but not overwhelmingly productive. (They would have produced more if had I layered organic materials closer to the surface).

Note: The keyhole gardens are too ugly now for photos. One must retain appearances. I’ll return later and add a few from their halcyon days of mid summer. I planted some late season carrots that almost took off–until the weather cooled, re-energizing Chloe, our young golden lab, who until that point kept out of the gardens. The carrot patch is now a DMZ. Straw hats on chests, we let it lie.

In the front yard garden, the long peppahs have been minimally productive (but also sunburn resistant and sweet fresh and cooked); the zukes overwhelmed then, thankfully, died fast; the sneaker pumpkin produced three little sugar babies and then sunk back with the zukes; and the corn tried real hard. Two to three bicolor cobs per plant, for a total of about 32, but disappointingly bland. We grew it in our “experimental bed”–our “grow it for fun” bed. Next year we’re going to try turmeric and ginger there–I’ve heard there are varieties that are possible to grow in the PNW. And the bed is in direct sun all day.

Nice surprises: The basil (about 14 plants) rallied for a strong second showing–we’ve had fresh basil in salads all summer. And we grew stevia for the first time–just one plant. I know many people don’t care for it–it’s easy to go from sweet to bitter with stevia. But it’s like growing a sugar plant. Leaves are nice to chew on my way out the door and they also work in tea without leaving an extra herby taste. I’ll grow it again.

Related to the garden, our mason bees filled all their tubes with larva and packed them with mud, so next Spring we’ll have another set of little pollinators ready for work.

27 Jun

Garden Report, 2014-06-26

Keyholes West and EastWe’re starting to get good canopy coverage in the keyholes, mostly watering from the center, the leaf crops (kale and chard) are surprisingly sweet–the best luck we’ve had with them. Snowpeas are ripening, purple bush beans are blooming, eggplant is doing what it’s supposed to do, and the tomatoes are dense, healthy, and not too tall, with blossoms–now to get them to set. Right now it’s just a pretty good garden, with the roots firmly established and drilling down. I won’t know how successful my keyhole construction is until July/August, when the rain more or less stops.

Keyhole Two, with ales, beans, peas, tomatoI finally watched Deb Tolman’s video and learned that many of the sites I used as reference are a bit sloppy or simplistic–I made a layer of carbon, a layer of nitrogen (3:1) and a layer of dirt (fairly deep). There should have been multiple alternating layers of each–at least two. My guess is the plants with deep roots like the tomatoes will dig down and go nuts. The others will get less fertilizer, some from the dirt, most from the compost bin. At the end of the year, I’ll likely dig out some soil and repeat a set of layers. I’ll watch the video again first, take notes, and make sure I’m following a slightly more scientific model (although it’s a model that makes a lot of intuitive sense). 


Front Beds, Most of ThemIn the front, the three zukes and, I think, a pumpkin are throwing their arms out, with the frontmost of the zukes (a yellow) ready to pick in a week or so and the back two successively less mature. In spite of soap spray, the caterpillars are still eating basil salad, although I’ve slowed them down (mixing a weak solution of dish soap and water)–I think the next round of basil will be in pots. Peppers (you can just see the top of a Gypsy lower center, left of the lilies) are, meh, a little slow, but I expect them to boom in the next few weeks. And the corn, well, we’re not in the sun belt, it looks very healthy, but it’s not much more than knee high. Perhaps in a month. I’ve given it some nitrogen snacks for encouragement (in spite of what Debby says, I’m sure they won’t ruin the corn’s appetite later this summer). 

Thanks to my friend Steve who started me down the keyhole path and set the example with his own garden reports.

27 May

Brief Garden Report, 2014-05-26

The keyhole gardens are planted for the spring. Here’s what we’ve done so far. Next steps include mulching, probably with newspaper. Weather’s been just about perfect–high 60’s to low 70’s, sun and light shade, mildly humid, spots of easy rain. It looks like the trend will continue for another week or so, at least.

Key(hole) West planted with beans, evil eggplant, tomatoes, kale

Key(hole) West planted with beans, evil eggplant, tomatoes, kale

Key(hole) East, planted with snap peas, monster tomato, and kale

Key(hole) East, planted with snap peas, monster tomato, and kale

The front gardens have 4 zukes (3 bought–two Gypsy yellow, one green Noche, and one mystery volunteer), 12 corn (bi-color sweet), two sweet peppers (Carmen and Palladio), and a bunch of herbs, some new, some returnees (basil, leaf parsley (italian, cilantro), stevia, thyme, sage, tarragon).

15 Apr

Keyhole Garden Batteries #’s 1 and 2 Complete

Over the weekend I finished building the second keyhole garden (KHG), then moved a couple yards of dirt to top off #1 and fill #2. The lawn grew enough in the past two weeks to provide substantial green layers for both (I dug it into the #1 before topping it off and laid a healthy layer in #2).

Stats: 6 feet in diameter, 2 feet deep (including a few inches into the earth), with a good layer of brown compost (accumulated cardboard and other paper-based recycling), shrub trimmings, bark, and leaves; followed by a layer of lawn clippings, quickly covered by dirt. The ratio is about 3:1 (brown:green|carbon:nitrogen). Compost cage in the center, 1 foot in diameter, for long term feeding.

KHG-done-2 KHG-done-1

What’s that pink thing in the center of each compost cage (shown in #1)? Why, it’s a pygmy sarlacc, a natural squirrel and cat deterrent. Here’s a closeup:


The tomato cages posted around the borders are my attempt at keeping the dogs off until the vegetables have taken over. It doesn’t take much to deter Sasha–he has one lazy eye and unless he can easily detect a wide opening, he’ll steer clear (otherwise, he’s a natural hill climber). Chloe, if she doesn’t think she can use the elevation to reach the squirrels that race along the fence, will also probably be deterred.

People who don’t garden don’t quite understand why we built these. They aren’t along the fence and they stick up. Two people have asked, So you’re going to plant a garden in these this year? (After I gave them my pat summary description–although I was so tired I might have been speaking word salad.) Aside from being practical, I also think of the KHG as terrain or backyard architecture. Sure, they require less maintenance, water, and backache. But, fundamentally, they’re cool. The dogs think of them as the center of a figure 8 racetrack.

Next up: let the beds cook for a month, till mid-May, then start planting. In the meantime, order Deb Tolman’s KHG DVD–and learn what I haven’t learned yet (in prep for next year–when I’ll also probably add another layer of stones), plan the garden plantings, and shape a dog-friendly mound in the back corner of the yard from all the relocated sod. At some point, plow up the surrounding sod and plant nose and eye-friendly ground cover.

26 Mar

Keyhole Garden Battery #1: Filling It In

It turns out a garden two feet deep and 6 feet in diameter takes more material than you’d think (yes, the math is easy, but so is convincing yourself that you have plenty of materials on hand that fill the required volume). For the brown layer, I used quite a few  very large cardboard boxes (saved and snagged from local retailers), a few 2013 phone books, and all the paper-based recycling we could scrounge. For the green, clippings from the first mowing, and bark and sticks from the tree I felled last year (from the pile waiting for the chipper), then random dead cuttings from the herbs and flowers. Normally our lawn produces a recycle bin of cut grass–this year, I raised the mower deck to its tippy toes to accommodate the wet lawn and encourage even growth. The result: a relative tablespoon of cuttings. Maybe there’ll be more for the next bed.

The results, before adding dirt:


Note: the funnel cake-shaped roll of paper in the compost cage was added to retain the contents initially, just in case the grid was too large. It rained the next day, crumpling the paper. I dumped compost on top–the cage held it just fine.

Day before yesterday, I started liberating the nice black dirt from our big raised bed next to the fence (and associated tree roots). Plenty of dirt to top off the keyhole bed, my optimistic lobe said. Not quite. 3/4 of it moved and still a good ten inches (x 6 feet) to go. I’ll scrounge dirt from other sources around the yard, then see what it costs to buy a trailer load from our local landscaping supply yard.  I’ll probably pay their suburb-jacked prices to go easy on our minivan versus driving significantly further out. (We need the van–a 2005 Caravan with 130k–to last a few more years. It shows my age to think that anything made after the magical year 2000 AD–like my daughter–still sounds new.)

So bed #1 has become our learning (or teaching) garden, providing a realistic estimate of work and materials needed  to build a keyhole bed: a template that we can plug into our garden budget and calendar. Having that info on hand has freed us to think about other garden-related dependencies to address before or while the second bed goes up.

And when it’s all done, then we shall bask in the admiration of our neighbors…


Or, more likely…

20140325_123632 (1)

24 Mar

Keyhole Garden Battery #1: Ground Breaking to Build Up

Keyhole garden #1 progress made on Saturday, 3/22/2014.  Cost $0, thanks to the stones retrieved from a raised bed I’m razing to the West (left/downhill of the photo frame).


Yesterday I found enough cardboard and paper products (just barely) to layer the bottom and sides, followed by bark from a tree I felled last year and the first Spring lawn cuttings. (I finished that work in the dark, so no photos yet.) I also made a compost cage from materials on hand: tomato cage wrapped several times with wire fencing.  Yesterday, I broke ground on the second bed just uphill (you can see it staked out in the bottom photo), but am focusing on finishing the first bed before I do more with the second. 


Tonight, I’ll pick up a few blocks for the keyhole inset (it’s fairly shallow), scavenge the creek banks tonight for some more dry green material, fill in the compost cage (from our existing compost bin), and start transferring the dirt from the old raised bed.  Bed #1 is on the steepest pitch–about a 12 inch drop from the upper to the lower side, but the bed bottom is flat: built up on the lower end and dug into the ground on the upper. It’s two feet deep with a three foot compost cage, with a six foot interior diameter.


Our motivation behind this effort, aside from Fun with Gardening and Reducing Water usage (even though we live in the Portland metro area, water’s still expensive): The dogs were rough on the backyard over the winter, removing much of the thin layer of sod long the rise and further down. The photo above shows some of that damage. The placements are ideal: during much of the Spring and all of the summer, both beds will be in full sunlight nearly all day long. Though the yard is on the north side of the house, it’s high enough in the upper end to stay out of the house’s shadow.

Given the shape of the garden wall, the kids were sad to learn that I was filling it with dirt. The dogs helped by sleeping in the sun most of the day.


24 Mar

Mason Bees Breakout

…break out of their cocoons, that is. While they’re easy bees to “keep” they’re tricky to place. They need to be near a source of mud (the more sticky clay, the better) to furnish their tubes/nest and near a Spring food supply (pollen). Fortunately they have a range of 300-400 feet, so it was more a matter of what do I want them to see first and how do I keep them happy.

So I placed them near the food (two bloomin’ plum trees) about 4 feet up on a shared fenceline and turned over some earth below the nest. There’s a creek about 25 feet away for extra mud if they need it. There’s rosemary blooming about 20 feet in the other direction and soon early blueberries in bloom, too.

I watched two hatch yesterday and take off like Harrier jets straight for the plum trees. Four others were already out and about. That leaves four more to hatch. I expect they’ll be out and about in the next few days.

Photos are still in the camera.

20 Mar

Mason Bee Ranching

This was my early birthday present from Debby and the kids:


–a Mason Bee kit, with house, paper tubes, and bees–in larval stage, currently in the fridge until I tack the hive onto our backyard fence this weekend. Our son Adam is working at a local beekeeping supply store, Bee Thinking, and helped Debby with the purchase. I’ve been interested in raising honey bees but we have bee allergies at home, so this was the family compromise.


The Mason Bees won’t produce honey, but they’re industrious little pollen spreaders. They’re half the size of honey bees, the workers sting only if crushed, and produce such a small amount of venom that the risk of anaphylactic shock is very low.

15 Aug


From Deborah Kremer, Chief Soup Chef at chateau Kremer. She wrote this last fall in email to share with friends and even though she says fall, I say all year long.

Hello Hello Hello !

Welcoming the fall weather with warm, hearty, and nutritious soup is what this time of year is all about. Ok, that and tight budgets and time and health.  So soup it is !

Here is a very basic soup that I use to build different styles and types.  It usually takes me 25 minutes from start to letting it simmer until it’s time to eat. You can let it stew longer if you wish.

The measurements are not exact and to tell the truth, until I was making it tonight I didn’t pay attention to the amounts of herbs and spice. So tonight I did just for you darlings.

The finished amount can feed four with side dishes and leave a little for next day’s lunch.

  • 1 medium to large onion—-chopped
  • 1 block of extra firm tofu
  • 2 cans coconut milk (or 1 can coconut milk and 1 can water). Add more coconut milk and water as desired.
  • 1 to 2 cans of cannellini beans/white kidney beans
  • 2 tsp of bouillon per 2 cups of liquid, either vegetable or chicken base (beef is too heavy)
  • mushrooms sliced, any amount (or none at all)
  • 3 cloves garlic minced (add more or less, depending on your love for garlic)
  • 1 tsp oregono
  • 1/2 tsp tarragon
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp thyme
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • salt and pepper
  • kale, as much as you like. We like it alot.
  • Optionally, cooked rice or quinoa for the bottom of your soup bowl


You can use a saute pan and a pot, or a deep pan for sauteing and souping. We use either, depending on how big the batch or how much room we have on the stove while cooking. These instructions use the one pan method.

  1. Add a splash of oil to pan and warm up or soften the onions and garlic. Set them in a bowl.
  2. Add the mushrooms, sauteing until they are light brown. Alternately barely cook them or leave them raw. Set them aside with the onions.
  3. Cube the tofu. Add a bit more oil to the pan, then add the tofu. Let it cook for a minute or two and gently stir it.  When it become easy to stir, add the herbs and spices.
  4. Crush the herbs and spices with your fingers as you add them. Let the tofu soak up their flavor for a few moments. Now put Tofu into pot and
  5. Add the coconut milk (or milk and water), bouillon, and beans. Stir in the sauteed onions, garlic, and mushrooms.
  6. If you’re making rice or quinoa, start it now while the soup simmers.
  7. Let the soup simmer until it tastes right. Add the kale and turn off the heat.
  8. Add cooked rice or quinoa in the bowl before adding soup, or use rustic bread. Sprinkle cheese on top–it’s like frosting for soup.

For additional flavor and overall goodness add:

  • curry spice
  • ginger (either or both for a Morrocan-style flavor)
  • carrots
  • sweet potatoes
  • zucchinni—–add next to last since they are a softer vegetable and may mush
  • green beans (frozen or fresh)
  • Any other firm vegetable in your kitchen

To prep hard vegetables like carrots, you may want to microwave or steam them for a moment (only to just inject the heat or they’ll turn to mush in the soup). Alternately, grate them, providing a fun twist on texture, or jullienne them and saute until they start to soften.

We’ve made at least a dozen variations on this recipe. Remember to have fun and experiment with the flavors to complement your tastebuds! Be sure to taste along the way.  If you’re trying a new herb or spice, start with small doses.

© 2011 Deborah Kremer