Monday, August 30, 2004


Now is the time for one of the more pleasant tasks of the summer – making pesto to freeze for the winter.

I had intended to do a comparison of two varieties of basil and their resulting pestos. I started from seed, nursed and set out 20 (more or less) plants of each variety. Pinching the plants back to encourage bushiness, I sat back smugly to watch them grow. A few days later I went to check on them and discovered all the new growth had been eaten. The plants looked so miserable and I doubted that they would recover. So I bought some plants of unknown pedigree and tucked them in among the pathetic sticks that were my beautiful starts. Of course, the original varieties recovered, but now the nameless plants are among the special varieties so the pesto taste test will be postponed until next year.

The upside is that my basil is yielding heavily. I harvested 8 cups of leaves yesterday and made two batches of pesto to freeze, saving some for dinner ( fresh salmon spritzed with fresh lemon juice, spread with pesto and baked…yum!). I put the pesto in ice cube trays and when it is frozen remove the cubes and place in freezer bags.

So here is this year’s recipe. It is last year’s recipe with some tweaks courtesy of The Best Recipe from the editors of Cook’s Illustrated magazine.

Pesto is a tonic in the winter, when the fog has settled in for days and the garden is covered in darkness both when I leave for work and when I get home. A little winter surprise and a reminder of green summer in the monochromatic season of rest.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

A new mantis

I brought a new resident predator to the garden yesterday. I spied it sitting on the edge of a box while at work and thought it would be a nice addition to the garden.

There are two species of praying mantis (family Mantidae) in this region. Stagmomantis Carolina, the Carolina mantis, is native. Tenodera aridifolia, the Chinese mantis, was introduced to the U.S. in the early 1900's for pest control. I have not keyed my new guest (how rude would that be?) but am inclined to think it is the Carolina mantis, whose wings are shorter and do not extend to the end of the abdomen.

The arrival in my garden was marked by much fanfare and turned into a photoshoot. Mantids move slowly and seem to preen for the camera, turning their heads and moving their front legs into the classic "praying" pose that gave rise to the name. The Greek word mantis translates as prophet or seer.

Mantids are thought of as good predators in a garden. Unfortunately they are indiscriminate in their selection of prey and are just as likely to feed on your beneficials as on your pests. But never mind. I love having them in the garden and will be watching for the characteristic egg cases, which show up in some strange places. One year I found one on a shovel handle! For those unfamiliar with the egg case, here is a picture.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Fingerling potatoes

I have been stealing a few fingerling potatoes. I know if I wait longer they will grow but I simply cannot wait until the vines die back. By very carefully lifting the plants with a four tine garden fork I am able to get enough for an occasional special dinner. With Italian parsley and a bit of olive oil they are so delicious that I often wonder why I don’t plant the whole garden to potatoes and tomatoes!. But a wise friend points out that those few square feet make them all the more special.

This year I discovered an incredible source for seed potatoes. Milk Ranch Specialty Potatoes has an amazing selection and very reasonable prices. This prompted me to try a couple of new varieties in addition to my old favorite, Russian Banana. I also ordered Austrian Crescent and Rose Finn Apple. Austrian Crescent has won, hands down, for very good size, yield and, most importantly, flavor. It is tied with Russian Banana, my mainstay for so many years.

My limited space does not allow for a crop of potatoes for winter keeping. But enough fingerlings for a few memorable meals are something to look forward to.

In the immortal words of Winnie-the-Pooh, channeling A. A. Milne:

What I say is, if a man really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow.

Well, I try.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Kitchen Garden Day

Today is Kitchen Garden Day. Described as “global, decentralized celebration of delicious local foods produced on a human scale”, it is intended to bring together those gardeners who enjoy growing their own fruits, vegetables and herbs and preparing them in healthy, creative ways. Started by Kitchen Gardeners International, the day serves to remind gardeners of the satisfaction to be gained from harvesting locally grown produce.

My own celebration is small. It was to have begun with planting some lettuce and peas followed by a dinner including fingerling potatoes with parsley and the first summer squash of the year. Mother Nature, an unpredictable guest at any party, had other ideas. Sheets of rain precluded planting and turned potato digging into a rather soupy mess. Still, this is all part of the joy of kitchen gardening. The rain has brought out a myriad of rich fragrances that can only be found in the garden, and only after a rain, making the treasure hunt for potatoes a feast for the senses (muddy touch included). It is a pleasure to mark another year as a kitchen gardener.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Eggplant - take two

Let the eggplant harvest commence! Four varieties are now at harvestable stage. The larger will go into Roman Style Eggplant, the smaller for grilling. Believe it or not, there is an eggplant page boasting 2655 eggplant recipes (and counting)! Summer has really arrived!

Clockwise from top left: Rosa Bianca, White Cloud, Vittoria, Louisiana Long Green.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

A fall garden

The cool season vegetable seedlings are now available at the nurseries. With the temperatures nudging toward 100 it is hard to think about the fall garden but now is the time. The light is subtly different, and the afternoon shadows seem longer. If the speed with which the summer passed is any indication I had best be getting my seedlings in the ground before the narrow window passes.

Each year I am sorely tempted by the crucifers, despite my complete inability to grow any of them successfully. In my imaginary fall garden Brussels sprouts stand tall and packed with those lovely mini-cabbages from top to bottom and I serve my own cauliflower and broccoli at Thanksgiving dinner. A gardener’s imagination is a powerful force. But pragmatism will probably triumph. Lettuces and chard will do quite nicely if I plant them under a reemay umbrella. Add some radishes and peas to complete this year’s fall garden.

But I have not yet been to the nursery. My imaginative twin may still win. A quick visit to one Master Gardener page (admittedly not from Oregon) hasn’t really helped matters:

When I plant cauliflower in early spring, I get small, ricey discolored heads; when I plant for the fall, I cut snowy white heads with excellent flavor. I have similar good results with fall plantings of Brussels sprouts.

A siren song similar to seed catalogs in the spring! Cauliflower isn’t all that hard to grow. Is it?

Friday, August 13, 2004

an inordinate fondness

The story, often repeated with variations, concerns a conversation between a cleric and population geneticist J.B.S. Haldane. The cleric asked Haldane what he could infer about the creator from observing the natural world. Haldane supposedly replied that the creator had “an inordinate fondness for beetles”.

The garden certainly supports this observation. The diversity of beetles I find while merely walking or watering is amazing. But getting a little closer to the ground while weeding often disturbs some remarkable beetles one would not see otherwise. My most recent discovery was a metallic green-gold beetle, about ¼ inch. The color was quite vivid but when I looked at it later it was red-orange with three black spots on each wing. I keyed it to the family Chrysomelidae, subfamily Cassidinae. These are the tortoise beetles, the name owing to the tortoise shell shape. But the color change became more puzzling. When I looked at the beetle the next morning I was surprised to see the metallic coloring again. Numerous Google word combinations later I happened upon a Texas A&M page describing the golden tortoise beetle, Charidotella sexpunctata bicolor (Fabricius) (= Metriona bicolor (Fabricius)). The metallic coloring of this beetle disappears when disturbed. This phenomenon is described in more detail in an article originally appearing in Scarabogram, Sept. 1994, New Series No. 173, pp. 2-3:

The gold color is caused by a thin layer of moisture between the cuticle and an inner layer of the elytra. Apparently the insect is able to "voluntarily" squeeze this layer, reducing its thickness and eliminating the gold color. This change also occurs involuntarily when the beetle is under moisture stress, and, of course, when it dies.

This moisture reflects light, resulting in the appearance of metallic gold, and illustrates the structural coloring responsible for much of the iridescence observed in insects.

When I first came across Haldane’s quote many years ago I presumed he was referring to the sheer numbers of beetles in the world. Coleoptera is the largest order of insects with a quarter of a million species worldwide, 30,000 in North America. These numbers could certainly have prompted the comment. But after studying the beetles and observing my own local representatives I think it more likely that Haldane saw the enormous complexity and diversity of the beetles as an apt expression of “an inordinate fondness”.

Thursday, August 05, 2004


I have read glowing descriptions of Salvia patens or gentian sage and have always wanted to grow it. Betsy Clebsh, in A Book of Salvias, echoes its popularity:

Since Salvia patens was introduced to horticulture in 1838, it has been extensively grown and deservedly praised. William Robinson (1933) says that without question, it is one of the best plants in cultivation. Many gardeners today wholeheartedly agree with him.

I now count myself among those gardeners. Every year I buy many of my basic seeds from Pinetree Garden Seeds. This company usually offers a few interesting flower seeds. I saw the description of S. patens 'Blue Angel' and decided to try it. I was not disappointed. The size of the blossoms was a complete surprise. And the clear blue really is unlike any salvia I have grown.

I have just discovered that S. patens 'Guanajuato' is supposed to have blossoms up to 2"! I will be trying to hunt down some seed this winter.

So many salvias... so little room.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Beloved, Let Us Once More Praise the Rain

Conrad Aiken described Monday's rain perfectly in this poem. We were first treated to a dazzling show complete with window-rattling thunderclaps and lightening bolts illuminating the whole horizon. A long, soaking rain followed, satisfying the garden for at least a couple of days. No amount of watering, by hand or with the drip system, can wake the garden like a deep rain. The colors are all saturated, the leaves plumped and ready to face what promises to be another week of hot weather, and the sky cleared of the ever present summer haze and remnants of smoke from a nearby forest fire.

The garden and I were both heat weary. Truly I do praise the rain.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

A promised Bambi diatribe

Walt Disney did gardeners a great disservice when he made the movie “Bambi”. Any gardener who has met with deer knows that they are not a cartoonish embodiment of saccharin anthropomorphism but rather more akin to some hybrid mammalian cockroach. Tolerance is being sorely tested. I have patched the deer fence, urged fellow gardeners to close the gates, sprayed foul smelling fertilizers, but each day brings new losses. Tomatoes? Mown down, lovely promising green fruit gone. Peppers? A few sticks, some pulled completely from the ground, with only the firecracker hot thai left intact. Beans? A topknot of foliage crowns each bamboo teepee, presumably unreachable.

On rainy, cold January days, deer nightmares of previous years are blessedly washed away, and the gardener turns to that pleasant task of seed selection and ordering. The chasm between what I imagined when selecting, planting and nurturing and the reality of plants cut down in a doe-eyed blink is vast. Were I prescient and able to see the decimation of my summer garden would I have even bothered? Surely a question all gardeners have at one time or another answered with a resounding YES. Of course I would bother. Gardening is thought of as a destination driven activity. Plant seeds; eat fruits of labor, mmm, good. But gardening for serious gardeners really is as much about the journey as the destination. I learn in my garden, I find peace in my garden and sometimes I cry in my garden. It is a place of comfort and centering.

Now I must be off to the grange to buy blood meal. Why, I hear it deters the deer, you know……