A Profusion of Peppers!

This heat wave we’ve been having lately is having a mixed effect on the garden. The peppers and tomatoes are loving the heat, the herbs are tolerating it, and the chard is just suffering. The cabbages seem to be more or less indifferent. At the end of Week One of Bedrest (yes – the verdict is not the worst case scenario on my ankle, but not the best – I’ll be in a cast for the next six weeks, which is basically the rest of my pregnancy) I sent husband out back with the camera for a progress report.

As you can see from the photos above, we really do have a profusion of peppers! The green ones are the hot peppers, and the yellow ones are the sweet peppers. And most of them are still setting flowers, so there will certainly be more to come.

You’ll also notice that the chard is looking a little rough for wear. We think we’ve got the spider mite attack under control as we haven’t seen much further evidence of them on the plants, but they’re slow to rebound. This killer heat just isn’t helping either – with intermittent thunderstorms all the time, it’s hard to know when to water and to stay on top of it.

We also let the oregano go to flower. It’s slightly more bitter now that it’s flowering, but not so much that I think it’s inedible. Oregano is a favorite of bees, so I wanted it to flower to be sure to attract enough pollinators for the peppers and tomatoes. Seems the plan is working!

 Check out that hops plant! It’s well over six feet tall now, and husband has really had to scramble to keep up with it with the makeshift trellis. And it’s grown to that height in the shade! They really prefer to be in full sun, so I can hardly imagine how tall it would be if we had it down on the patio. It doesn’t seem to producing any hops cones yet, so we’ll see if it does. We don’t really know at what stage of it’s growth cycle it’s supposed to, so we need to read up on that a bit.

The bay tree is robust and still outgrowing it’s pot. I hope Gethsemane has another sale on their pots this fall, because we’re going to need a much bigger one to move it into this year. It’s a proper tree now.

And we had to give the rosemary a haircut. With all this wet, humid weather it was starting to get affected by powdery mildew. Husband tries to move it down to the patio every few days so that it gets full sunlight and better air circulation, but that’s a heavy pot and we have a lot of plants to keep on the move in the quest for better sunlight. We are definitely investing in wheeled plant coasters for next season. The powdery mildew was really at the tips of the branches, so we just lopped them off with the garden shears. Hopefully that will eradicate the problem once and for all. And honestly, I kind of like the more manicured look it has now. It’s got a topiary feel to it.

And last but not least, the cabbages and tomatoes. The cabbages are just fine and are continuing to head up. We’ve had no problems with bugs or disease with them thus far, so hopefully they continue on in good health through the summer.

And check out those lovely green tomatoes! There are some big ones hiding in there too. We had a few that succumbed to blossom end rot (I blame this ridiculous weather for that) but for the most part they’re all healthy and robust. None of them are starting to pink up yet, but hopefully any day now. We’ve got to be on squirrel patrol big time – one of the neighbors said she had some tomatoes just starting to turn red, and the little bugger took a bite out of them! So she’s watching hers carefully and snatching them off the plant at the first sign of red and letting them ripen on the counter. So we may not get vine-ripened tomatoes around here, but we WILL get them!

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Yeah, it’s one of those kind of days. Fifty-fifty. In good news around here, I joined up with a great group called Rogers Park Farms this week. It’s a neighborhood organization that’s just starting up to promote urban agriculture and sustainable food systems. I’m excited about contributing to their good work as much I can. I attended an informational meeting this past Wednesday and am impressed with the vision and drive they’ve got for the projects that they’re trying to establish. I hope that my modest urban gardening and homesteading skills, as well as blogging and social networking abilities, will be of use. If you’re in the Rogers Park area of Chicago, I really urge you to spread the word and get involved.

I’ve also tracked down two farmers that frequent our Glenwood Sunday Market that can provide me with bulk tomatoes for canning this year, so it looks like that’s a go for me. And via another new shiny and new Rogers Park initiative, OhSoWe (a community networking site), I found someone that has almost two dozen quart canning jars that I can have to use. I’m closer to my goal of obtaining at least 52 jars for the tomato project.

And lest we not forget the simplest good thing of all – it’s Friday. Hello weekend.

Onto the bad… I’ve been crazy for pies lately (which is not bad at all) so I’ve been making a ton. I’ve been feeling really, really good about my crust. Until tonight. I decided to make both a pork pie (still trying to perfect that recipe) and some apple hand pies, so I thought I’d “simply” double the crust recipe. Yeah, no. I got something I could cobble together for the pork pie, but it wasn’t fun, it wasn’t elegant and I’m sure it’ll be tough as hell by the time it comes out of the oven. I’m not ready to double the crust recipe yet. Tomorrow I’m going to try to regain my slightly shaken pie confidence by making a single batch crust for apple hand pies. And yes – I know apples are not yet in season. I confess, I have a can of apple pie filling sitting on my counter at this very moment. But I’m pregnant, and I’m just nuts for apple pie right now. I’m taking a few allowances.

And now for the ugly. Our beautiful, delicious, beloved Swiss chard has a spider mite infestation! One plant is just decimated. The second plant is virtually untouched, so I was able to harvest a small amount of leaves for the pork pie tonight. We’re in a bad spot with this plant though. It’s in a communal planter, so there’s huge risk that it could spread to the two thymes, oregano and other chard. We considered just ripping the whole plant out immediately, but really, everything has been exposed already. So we’re going to try to treat it and hope it clears up and becomes healthy again. I’d really hate to lose it. We cut out the worst looking leaves and sprayed it down with soapy water. There seem to be sixteen thousand ways of dealing with spider mites out there, so we chose this one for ease of application, the fact that we have dish soap on hand, and it’s relatively food safe. But if it doesn’t clear up in a few days, we’re going to have to put the chard out of it’s misery and hope the other plants make it through unscathed. I just feel really bad, because I feel like I should’ve noticed it before now. But it’s been kind of a busy week.

So, the pork pie is in the oven, the moon is shining high over the city and I’m in my favorite chair on the deck under lantern light, surrounded by a perimeter of citronella buckets. The first few fireflies of the evening are starting to float about and I’ve got a tall glass of iced tea at hand. For a fifty-fifty day, I guess that isn’t half bad.

The Fruits of Our Labor

We got back from our suburban family wedding travel close to noon today, so we’ve had a little weekend left to spare. We set up my sewing table that the in-laws refinished (complete with patterned paper drawer inserts and new drawer pulls!) and installed some fabric blinds that my mother in law sewed to replace the crappy broken plastic ones in our bedroom (picture updates of those to come; I’m all camera’d out for today). Then we threw some Milwaukee Iron burgers on the grill and had those for lunch on the deck with potato salad and baked beans. So a low-key 4th of July thus far. We also scored a deal on charcoal on our way back to the city – Home Depot has a 2 for $9 special this week on Kingsford charcoal, so we got four bags since husband’s mom drove us back to the city. That’ll last us maybe a month, we’re hoping.

What I really wanted to share with you all though is the fact that our veggie plants are finally fruiting! Check out some of these tomatoes –

And both the sweet and hot peppers have started to develop as well –

And our swiss chard is putting out new growth after our first harvest. I’m looking forward to harvesting another batch at the end of this week.

Everything is looking really good. We’ve got to keep close watch now since that squirrel is still lurking about, but I’m ready to spring into action with impromptu cages if that’s what it takes.

As for the rest of our holiday weekend – we’ll probably do something low-key for dinner, like pasta salad or white bean and broccoli pasta since we did our big grilling for lunch today. I’m going to get a pie crust mixed up shortly to chill in the fridge and use the last little bit of the frozen berries in the freezer to make a pie for dessert – high time to make way for this year’s bounty. And later, just relaxing on the back deck with our books and good conversation likely. Maybe a card or board game too.

I hope everyone has enjoyed the 4th of July weekend like we have (and maybe snuck in a couple of projects too). Happy 4th!

Swiss Chard – The First Harvest

Thursday night we harvested the first edible (besides stealing a few herbs) from this season’s Apartment Farm – the swiss chard. I made a pork pie for dinner (I’m still tweaking the recipe, but it’s a good one so I’ll post it as soon as I’ve got it fully developed), and as a side dish we had some of our chard. Here’s a picture of it ready to go –

It’s a modest sized portion, especially considering that greens wilt down quite a bit when cooked, but it was enough for good-sized servings for the two of us, with a little to top of lunch leftovers. Here’s a picture of the plants post-harvest –

Still looking robust with more to give. This is the first season we’ve grown chard, but from what I understand we can continually harvest it throughout the season. As long as you cut from the outside in and don’t completely remove the center “whorl” of the plant’s stem just at soil level, it will continue to send up new leaves. I’ve also read that you can cut the entire plant off if you leave about three inches of stem and it will send up new sprouts that way, but we opted for the individual leaf style of harvesting since it is planted in a decorative windowbox.

We prepared it very simply – just fried a few slices of diced bacon, and then cooked the chard with it for a little less than ten minutes until thoroughly wilted. The only seasoning we added was salt and pepper. I couldn’t have asked for a better side dish! It perfectly complemented the pork pie and was surprisingly delicious and sweet. I’m a convert to chard now. My husband has always loved chard, and I’ve always thought it was good, but really kale was more my thing. Even the chard from the farmers market I was only so-so about. But homegrown chard is another thing entirely. It’s one of those greens with a short lifespan once it’s cut, and it loses a lot of flavor in cold storage. But when you cut just moments before it goes into the pan – the flavor is just incredible. The sweetness and subtle minerality really pleasantly surprised me. It’s definitely earned a regular spot at Apartment Farm – I might actually try to start some now from seed so we can be assurred of having a good fall harvest of it beyond the few plants we have now.

I was also very pleased to be able to use our own fresh thyme to flavor the pork pie – the plants are so well established now that we can take as much as we want. Same for the oregano, bay and thyme plants, which we used in last night’s cioppino for dinner. I really love being able to eat what we grow – it’s tasty and intensely gratifying. I’m looking forward to a long summer of continual harvesting!

One Seed Chicago 2011

For those of you not familiar, One Seed Chicago is a project organized each year by NeighborSpace, a community organization that encourages gardening. Each year, Chicagoans vote on their favorite seed, and the winner is distributed free to those who voted and/or request the seeds.

This year’s contenders are eggplant, radish and swiss chard. I plan to cast my vote for the swiss chard – we actually just discovered chard this past season at the farmers market and fell in love with the flavor and color.

To cast your vote, head over to the One Seed Chicago site!