Beautiful recently hatched Monarch Butterfly San Diego

The Monarchy Rallies On (Raising Monarchs, Part III)

When I sat down to write this post it was headed in an entirely different direction. I planned to talk about the monarchs migrating north and my little hatchery switching gears, but as I jotted down what I thought would be a couple final musings on the subject and tried to select a couple favorite photos I realized I had a lot more to say on the topic. So here it is, newly revised, an update on my monarch babies.


So far I’ve hatched nearly thirty healthy monarchs and I’m hoping they are on their way north to overwinter before visiting us again next spring. I did unfortunately learn from experience that monarch caterpillars have many threats. I knew about their normal threats – predators such as wasps and birds, lack of food, loss of habitat – but who knew the evil tachinid fly would lay their parasitic eggs on my gorgeous stripey babies? And what the hell is oe??

Having fun growing milkweed in a box that says Monsanto. Just my way of saying "Suck it, Monsanto."

Having fun growing milkweed in a box that says Monsanto. Just my way of saying “Suck it, Monsanto.”

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First Zapotec Tomatoes

Later to ‘Maters? Maybe not just yet…

Ugh. For all my planning, swapping, hoping, reading, writing, digging, tilling and composting, this was a pretty dreadful season for tomatoes. I’ve had several crappy years in a row with tomatoes but I keep thinking things will improve if I just do things better. I started my good, strong, organic heirloom seeds back in February. I had big plans for canning San Marzanos and filling the freezer with homemade pasta sauce for winter. I imagined gorgeous, deep red homegrown Beefsteaks sliced and layered with basil leaves and fresh mozzarella. I vaguely recall visions of Baker Creek’s smoky Vorlons grilled, salted and spread generously on hunks of crusty bread.

At first it looked like things might turn out. The plants were full of tomatoes! They were healthy and strong! I have evidence!!! Just look at that gorgeous green stem and those beautiful baby ‘maters:

First tomato babies of 2014, Heirloom Beefsteaks

First tomato babies of 2014, Heirloom Beefsteaks

But then the wildfires took their toll, leaving behind stressed out, wilted plants. Whatever soil-borne bacterial or fungal disease took out last year’s crop cropped up again. Nematodes infested roots and hornworms chewed leaves. Before long I’d pulled up several dead and dying plants. I had intentionally planted in several new spots around our little 1/4 acre in hopes that some would survive my tomato-killing tendencies. Luckily some plants rebounded and looked promising. In June I harvested a basketful of Green Zebras, San Marzanos, Chocolate Cherries and Cherokee Purples.

First Tomato Harvest Spring 2014: Chocolate Cherry, Black Krim, Green Zebra, San Marzano

First Tomato Harvest Spring 2014: Chocolate Cherry, Black Krim, Green Zebra, San Marzano

We made salsa, salad, pasta and pizza and they were all delicious.

Salsa with tomatoes, serranos and cilantro from the garden

Salsa with tomatoes, serranos and cilantro from the garden

I thought, hey, it’s going to turn out okay! This is looking good, right? Gardening is great!

Beefsteaks looking amazing

Beefsteaks looking amazing

But I was kidding myself. While the fruit on this one plant did look great, the plant itself and most of the others were less than impressive. Not exactly the lush green tomato bush I was hoping for. Poor thing was barely hanging on despite my best efforts with twine and tape.

The reality

The reality

Still, the tomatoes were gorgeous. I was really looking forward to biting into the biggest Beefsteak yet… and then this happened:



No, those are not my teeth marks. By July I was cursing baby possums and picking more caterpillars than fruit. To put it mildly, I was getting discouraged. I vowed several times to never grow tomatoes again. I will say though, even as I was grumbling, I enjoyed moments of bliss when it all seemed worth it. Like watching these crazy “pleated” Zapotecs take shape. I had three plants, only one of which produced fruit, but it gave me a half dozen big, tasty tomatoes. They were not only cool-looking but they had a rich, sweet, tomato-ey flavor that put the rest to shame. To protect them from caterpillars, I picked them a little early and finished ripening to a deep red on the kitchen counter.

First Zapotec Tomatoes

First Zapotecs picked early to protect from caterpillars

I read that these meaty tomatoes were great for grilling… and they were.

Zapotec tomatoes on the grill

Zapotec tomatoes on the grill

Also fantastic on a frittata:

Frittata with Zapotec Tomato slices and fresh basil

Frittata with Zapotec Tomato slices and fresh basil

In the end I grew and planted nearly two dozen tomato plants from seed but only picked… hang on, I’m just checking my records… wait… this can’t be right. I grew over 70 tomatoes? When did that happen? Huh. Sweet! Maybe it’s not a great average when you consider the two dozen plants, and many were cherry-sized, but I’ll take it! And here I was, ready to say later to ‘maters. So glad I remembered to take notes!

Heirloom Tomatoes grown from seed (70+):
Beefsteak: 16
Chocolate Cherry: 20
Green Zebra: 7
San Marzano: 23
Cherokee Purple: 2
Zapotec: 6
Yellow Pear: 2
Black Krim: 1

Total Lbs: 10+

And so I remember…
Notes for next year’s garden:
• Do not plant in Trough/Main area for three years
• Grow smaller/determinate varieties in fabric bags with fresh potting mix
• Grow determinates and replace after initial harvest with new plant (succession gardening) to reduce spread of disease
• For ground, plant hybrids resistant to bacterial and fungal disease
• Carnival, Celebrity, and Santiago are nematode-resistant

That’s my 2014 Spring tomato harvest news. And who was I kidding about giving up? I’ve already got new plants in the ground, so here’s hoping for a tomato-filled fall.

~~~~~~~~~~ END POST ~~~~~~~~~

scraphound studio vulture

Blog Writer’s Process Tour

One of my favorite parts of blogging is meeting new people who are doing and making and writing things that pique my interest. The more bloggers I stumble across, though, the harder I find it to keep track of them, matching names with blogs, recipes, stories etc. But once in a while someone comments on a post or shares a story and in a few words and images they paint such a clear picture of who they are that it all gels and, miraculously, sticks in my brain. One of these elusive creatures is Stacey Bender, who writes a darling blog about her life with hubby Tom and two doggies Ginger and Buddy. She calls her blog 10 legs in the Kitchen, which anyone with dogs (who love to be underfoot while anyone is doing anything in the kitchen) can relate to.
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Green California Wonder Bell Peppers

Piles of Peppers

I’m trying to catch up with my 2014 garden notes so I have to take a break from watching my monarch caterpillars for a moment, which is not as easy as it sounds. They’re so stinkin’ cute! But in the interest of having something to look back on when planning next year’s gardens I need to get this stuff down.

Today’s update features the lovely Capsicum, better known here in the states as peppers. Delicious, nutritious, crunchy, smoky, spicy and sweet, peppers offer a huge variety of flavors, textures and uses. Sweet red bell peppers, especially roasted or grilled, have always been at the top of my list but now, having managed to grow my first successful pepper crop from a variety of seeds gathered through swaps, I’m stretching my tastebuds a bit. Continue reading

Zucchini, Striped courgette and squash blossoms

Cukes and Zukes

Tis the season for cucumbers, zucchini and other summer loving members of the Cucurbitaceae family. Since cucurbitaceae is a mouthful I’m just going to call them cukes and zukes. I’ve had mixed results with these in the past so I’ve been watching and waiting to see what we’d get this year. I’m pretty happy so far, but my English and Armenian cucumbers are struggling, either from too much sun, not enough water, lack of vitamins or any combination of the above. They’re weak and yellow and spindly but I’m hoping I can revive them.

Cucumbers growing on trellis made from recycled umbrella frame

Cucumbers growing on trellis made from recycled umbrella frame

Lemon Cucumbers, shown here on our fancy umbrella-frame trellis, have done much better despite their sickly appearance. Normally you can find me squealing in adoration as each new baby veg has appears in my garden. To me, baby veg are akin to puppies and kittens and a firm hitch above human babies. Well, I have finally found a baby vegetable that doesn’t make me squeal. Sorry lemon cucumber but you look like a tiny unshaven Hep C victim.

Lemon Cucumber baby

Lemon Cucumber baby

Fortunately they shaped up quickly and I am pleased to see my lemon cukes are growing into very pretty little fruits. They really do look like a lemon! Their flavor is like a normal cucumber, if a bit milder, but it’s so hard not to imagine the tiniest hint of citrus when eating it.

Ripe Lemon Cucumbers

Ripe Lemon Cucumbers from my organic San Diego garden

Baby zucchini, on the other hand, is quite lovely, especially with its blossom attached. Normally a squash plant starts with an abundance of male flowers but my first plant shot out a couple girls. I know, they don’t look like girls, but I assure you that’s actually a female that did not get pollinated.

Zucchini Courgettes with blossoms

Zucchini Courgettes (unpollinated) with blossoms

The female flowers only open for one day, so with no males in the vicinity and no chance for pollination I decided to eat them. Sounds harsh but they’re sooo yummy! You’ll see these sometimes at the farmers markets, often labeled courgettes and going for a hefty price. I sauteed them lightly in olive oil, blooms and all, and sprinkled with sea salt. They have a really sweet, delicate flavor and don’t require much seasoning. Most people like to stuff the blossoms with goat cheese but I love them lightly coated with panko and parmesan and fried in olive oil. Last week we even grilled a couple and put them on grass-fed beef burgers and it was maybe the best burger I’ve ever eaten. Of course, the homegrown grilled Anaheim chili, lemon cucumber and Cherokee purple tomato didn’t hurt. Sadly there was no time for a photo shoot. That sucker was G-O-N-E gone.

Squash Mountain

Squash Mountain is thriving with bonus nasturtium, which seeds itself everywhere in our yard.

As for squash, I planted some new varieties this season including heirlooms sent to me from friends across the country. Being the impulsive gardener I am, I decided it would be fun to plant a random assortment, throw away the packets and just see what popped up. This seemed like a good idea at the time. Later my brain kicked in and I realized they’d all be cross-pollinating, effectively ruining their ‘heirloom’ status. I also forgot some are supposed to be picked young and others not and I don’t know which are which, but hey, what’s gardening without some surprises and lots of guesswork?

And so we built “Squash Mountain” in the middle of the front yard using extra dirt from our shop construction and brick things from around the yard. There’s even a Squash Mountain song we sing to the tune of “Moon River” but I haven’t quite worked out all the lyrics. Mostly we just wander around singing “Squaaaasshhhh MOUN-tain” in our best baritones, cracking ourselves up.

Zucchini, Striped courgette and squash blossoms

Zucchini, Striped courgette and squash blossoms

We’ve gotten several nice zucchini already and a few striped courgettes. I’m starting to see signs of something yellow sprouting but I really can’t remember what it’s going to be. Patience, grasshopper.

And since I started this blog in part to help me keep track of my garden successes and failures from year to year…

Squash & Cucumbers (Harvested June 18 to July 10):
Zucchinis: 5@ 1 lb. ea, 3 courgettes, 12 squash blossoms and 6 lemon cucumbers.

~~~~~~~~~~ END POST ~~~~~~~~~~

Releasing the monarch

Monarchs are GO! (Raising Monarchs, Part II)

I cannot believe this is my first time witnessing this! Watching a monarch butterfly go from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly has to be one of the most enchanting, most mesmerizing things I’ve ever seen. How did I survive 43 years without being remotely aware this was happening? Continue reading

Monarch caterpillar

The Monarchs Are Sprouting! (Raising Monarchs, Part I)

Well shoot. Apparently whilst playing blogger on my new iPad mini I turned off comments. This has been fixed so please comment away!

While my veggies have had some ups and downs, one thing has been growing like gangbusters… monarch caterpillars! Yay! Ever since planting milkweed a few weeks ago these adorable stripy creatures have been hatching like crazy. I have spent many pleasant hours watching them contentedly chewing their way through my plants. They basically spend their whole caterpillar life munching milkweed, gaining nourishment for their transformation into butterflies.

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Shishito Peppers on the Grill

Trouble in the Garden Part II + Grilled Shishitos

Grrr. Gardening. Some weeks it’s all “ooh, look at the pretty flowers,” and “hey is that a baby cucumber?” Other weeks it’s like “hey, what is eating my baby cucumber?” and “crap and damn did I seriously hammer a spike through a sprinkler line? Twice?!?” Hmph. Guess which I’m having? Continue reading

bee house in progress

A Home for Bees

I found myself with some free time this week as it was too damn hot for me to get in the welding shop. Aside from installing two new jungle bird sculptures at the botanic gardens I mostly just knocked around the garden trying to rescue my plants from the hot, dry, wildfire winds blowing through the county. I wasn’t sure I’d have anything to offer up for Fiesta Friday #16 but, like it or not, I am going to share with you my latest garden project while I scarf down some of these gorgeous snacks!

Yesterday I was poking around gardening sites on the web and happened onto one about building homes for solitary bees. I didn’t know anything about these little guys but apparently there are hundreds of bee species that don’t live in colonies. Unlike honeybees, they make nests in holes in old wood or in the soil. They don’t live there, but fill the hole with nectar and pollen, lay their eggs and then close up the hole with mud, leaves or other organic goodies and leave their babies to fend for themselves.
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In the garden, spring 2014

San Diego On Fire… Again?

So San Diego is on fire. Again. It’s basic arithmetic, I suppose. Lack of rain + hot, dry Santa Ana winds + 90 degree weather = fire. I’m sure we have all been quietly predicting and expecting it while holding onto a thread of hope that it would magically skip us this year. I wish to extend my gratitude to the hundreds of firefighters, police and others still in the air and on the ground fighting to keep people safe.

I am sitting here in my house with an eye on the news watching as fires continue to pop up – Carlsbad, Escondido, Camp Pendleton, Fallbrook. It’s really depressing thinking of all the people trying to pick up their kids from school, corralling pets, deciding what’s worth saving with just minutes to evacuate their homes. Over 30 homes destroyed already in a fire that only started this morning. Too sad.
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