canning and preserving: freezing swiss chard

Our garden’s swiss chard has thrived so much this year that it actually got away from us. We eat a lot of vegetables, but two people can only eat so much in a given week. We hadn’t picked any chard in probably three weeks, and in that time the plants got huge, to the point where they were starting to be attacked by pests. 

I decided to harvest it all, in the hopes that we’ll get another round later. But this is what I picked from the 5 or 6 plants we have. (OK, plus the peppers, few tomatoes and bag of green beans.) Knowing that you can obviously buy frozen spinach, I decided to try something new and freeze greens at home.

After I took out some chard to make tacos, this is what was left. I separated the leaves and the stems for ease of chopping. Those are decent sized bowls, too.

And then I chopped and I chopped and I chopped.

While I was chopping, I was bringing a large pot of water to boil. Once it was up to temp, I would take batches of leaves and stems and blanch them for about 3 minutes.

Blanching is a quick dunk in boiling water – you can do it with beans and tomatoes, too. It kills the enzymes that make vegetables decay, so they will stop “going bad” in the freezer and retain their color and flavor. I hear you can buy blanchers that are strainer type things that go inside the pots for ease of removal. That would probably be helpful if you’re blanching greens like I was, because man those stems and leaves were hard to fish out.

Once they were out, they were dunked straight into a bowl of ice cold water, to bring down the temperature and abruptly stop the blanching process.

Then it was time to squeeze. The soggy chard hung out in a colander until I added another batch and then another, and so on.

After all of the chard was blanched, rinsed and cooled, I picked up handfuls at a time and squeezed as much moisture out as possible. Each ball was placed on a cookie sheet with parchment paper, for the freezer. 

After about 4 hours, the balls were solid and frosty.

Just like the peppers, the swiss chard balls went in a Ziploc bag, with the date as well as a reminder that each ball is about a serving.

Now they’ll be ready to defrost and saute when we need them. I’m not sure how well other greens freeze, like collards or kale. But I know that for the recipes and side dishes where we need chard, the frozen balls will be sufficient. 

Theoretically you could remove the stems and only freeze the leaves. I’ve seen recipes for pickled chard stems, but since I’m not interested in pickling every single vegetable on the planet, and because I love the stems of chard just as much as the leaves, I included them. I just chopped off the most fibrous portions from the bottom and threw them in the compost.

What’s going gangbusters in your garden right now? Any preservation plans?


garden update: early August

Really the subtitle of this post should be “all the green tomatoes” because primarily, that’s what we’ve got going on in our garden right now.

Yep. And there’s more.

These ones look almost like pears or peppers.

This is just a tiny snapshot of the tomatoes we have going on right now. You can imagine the scope of the tomato issue when I show you that this is what the tomato beds look like right now.

Yeah… It’s kind of a jungle. We don’t win awards in this house for aesthetics, that’s for sure. But in just a few weeks we will likely be up to our eyeballs canning tomatoes and making salsa. I’m not complaining because they taste pretty great. The few that have ripened so far were made into the first batch of fresh tomato sauce (which we freeze) and it filled the house with the best smell – like the best of summer.

Beyond the tomatoes, the beans have been producing like mad. This was not even all of what I picked the other night. I had about another two bags of that size.

So the netting we have to keep the chickens out is still askew from me ripping it apart to get in there and pick. I was racing a thunderstorm that night so I was moving as fast as possible. Again, not winning any awards for aesthetics.

None of our cucumber plants made it, but we have had so many cucumbers from our CSA and my grandparents’ garden that I’m honestly kind of happy we don’t have any more.

One really cool thing though, is this bed of sweet corn. 

It’s so tall – and we’re seeing some silk. Here come the ears!

It will be pretty awesome to have a few ears of corn from our own backyard. Crazy to think just a couple months ago these were just seeds. 

The chard is also still doing well. Big huge leaves and vibrantly colored stalks.

Last but not least we have peppers. Lots of those coming, of different types. Hopefully right around the time for salsa.

Late August is the peak time for us for gardening and canning, so I’m trying to stay ahead of the game with what veggies we’re eating and preserving with a little white board on our fridge. 

How’s your garden doing?


other people’s gardens: having a garden with an HOA

Having a garden in an urban environment isn’t a cookie-cutter endeavor. There are often rules and limitations to work around. In the interest of promoting the idea that you can still garden in an urban environment, despite space or rule limitations, I bring you “other people’s gardens” – which is meant to highlight ways that people garden in the space they are in. If you want to share information about your garden, email me at nextgenhouse at gmail dot com.

First up is a garden in a development of townhomes with an HOA. How do you garden when you only have access to one side of the actual building and have rules about what you can do on your property? Meet Amber (my best friend), living and gardening in a townhouse in Cranberry Township with her husband Anthony and two cats, Bruce and Malcolm.   

We love having a garden, but had to be a bit creative with where to have it, making sure to utilize the limited space that we have and are allowed to plant in, thanks to having an HOA. Because we’re on an end unit we decided to make a raised garden bed on the side of the house. I started the project, but I’m a bit impatient and might have hammered some screws into place when the electric screwdriver wasn’t cooperating with me (I assure you that user error wasn’t part of the issue. At all). That’s when Anthony stepped in and made it pretty with his mad skills. Here is the garden:

This is the third year that we’ve had a garden, and we tried this year to plant vegetables that we tend to use the most. We belong to Kretschmann’s CSA and wanted to grow vegetables that would compliment our CSA boxes. Over the years we have planted watermelon, zucchini and eggplant along with our staples of tomatoes, peppers and basil. One year we planted pumpkins, but they took over the entire garden and spilled out of the raised bed. Basically that year we ended up with 2 pumpkins out of everything we planted.

This year we decided to plant bell peppers, wax peppers (which are HOT, in a good way), jalapeños, a plethora of tomatoes, kale, cilantro (which is exploding), chives and basil. We did have a rosemary plant that didn’t make it much past the transplant to the ground phase. We purchased all of our plants this year instead of starting them from seeds. We purchased the majority of our seedlings from Brenckle’s farm on Glen Eden Road (if you are in the area, check them out and support them).

As far as what to plant, because our space is limited, we have learned not to put vine plants in with everything else (those pumpkins sure taught us a lesson). Last year we planted zucchini in their own little space out back so they could grow and spread out as needed.

Ideally, it’d be nice to have our garden in the backyard where there’s full sun, but we would have to get permission for it and there is too much adult/kid/dog traffic back there as it borders the common area.  I’d have to spend my days manning the garden and I think my boss would get annoyed by that.

Because of the angle of the sun on the side of our house, we’ve learned through trial and error that the tomatoes should go towards the back of the house. Last year we planted them near the front of the house and they grew tall and wide and blocked the sun from reaching some of our smaller plants.  This caused the poor basil to reach out to the sunlight.

We also have a small cherry tree and a blackberry bush, but they are still both very young and don’t produce much yet. We just got the first 2 blackberries this summer!

I love watching our plants grow and there is a great feeling when you can walk outside and pick a vegetable or an herb that you need for dinner.

Before we had a garden, I sort of thought it would be overwhelming. There’s the watering (this year we bought a weeping hose from Home Depot that really cuts down on the watering time), the weeding (mulch helps keep the weeds to a minimum as well as keeping the ground wet), the pruning and the harvesting. I wasn’t sure what to expect on how much time it would take to tend to it. 

So far, it’s been totally worth the time put in. I’m sure this is because I enjoy working in the garden and find it relaxing to do the upkeep (and I love that my hands smell like the plants after I’ve been in the garden). If you’re thinking about having a garden but feeling overwhelmed, start by planting one or two things that you enjoy (strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers) and see how it goes. Once that isn’t so bad, you can add more.

canning and preserving: green beans

Weeknight canning is a tricky thing. Primarily because canning always, 100% without fail takes longer than you think it will. You look in the Ball Blue Book and see “20 minute processing time” and think, hooray! I can do three batches in one evening!

No, you can’t. At least not if you have to get up at 5 a.m. 

But you can usually handle one. So Tuesday night, we canned 9 pints of green beans.

You see, my grandparents have a large garden, and this year we’re helping to process and preserve what we can (no pun intended). We aren’t around to do the heavy lifting with the picking and maintenance, so we are helping on the back end, since we have the supplies and desire to can.

But the unpredictable thing about nature is that stuff is ready on its own timetable, not ours. So that’s how we ended up with enough green beans that we needed to can on a weeknight.

Much of the work is cleaning and prepping the beans, which is why it’s so time consuming. But we’re old hat at prepping beans for canning, since we’ve done beans each year since we started canning in the first place.

Beans have to be pressure canned, since the acidity level of the beans isn’t high enough to have botulism killed off by a boiling water bath. We do a raw pack, meaning we heat the jars and pack in raw beans and canning salt, plus boiling water. 

We can fit 9 pint jars comfortably in our canner, having decided to do pints instead of quarts so we’d have more jars to split up.

Even though the processing time is only 20 minutes for pints of beans, once that portion is done, the pressure has to come down on its own. Which is another reason that this is harder to do on a weeknight than it seems!

Man, our canner lid has water spots something fierce.

Anyway, we managed to fit in the entire process. I’m sure we’ll repeat it again this summer with more beans, but this is a good first start!

garden update: mid-July

This is the time of year where the garden seems to explode overnight and all of the sudden it’s time to pick something. Like this, our first tomato of the season.

We’ve got a million green tomatoes and tiny peppers not far from ripening, too. 

Look at these tiny bell peppers. They look like peppers for a dollhouse kitchen.

Hot peppers are coming along nicely too. Just need a few more tomatoes ready to make some fresh salsa.

If the size of these tomato plants is any indicator, we should have a good harvest this year.

One thing we’ve already been able to harvest is swiss chard. We usually just eat the chard on its own, sauteed in garlic and chicken broth. It’s one of my favorite vegetables, so I typically don’t have to find ways to eat it or use it up! 

Cucumber plants are also going gangbusters, and Mark’s been waging the war of attrition against cucumber beetles by smooshing them when he is out attending to the chickens.

The sweet corn was just about knee-high by the Fourth of July, and it’s looking strong. It rebounded nicely from a nasty storm we had awhile ago where it looked like the stalks were keeled over.

The beans have also taken over their bed. At my last garden update, we were noticing the gaps where the chickens had disrupted the seeds when they got into the bed and messed around. But here you can barely see the gaps – it looks like solid beans from border to border! 

I don’t have good photos of my herbs, because actually several of them died. They didn’t get watered while I was on vacation and we had several scorcher days in a row (an accidental oversight, but still that’s what killed them). I think I’ve been able to salvage the basil, rosemary and chives at the very least. Working on bringing the dill back to life, as well as the sunflowers. Hopefully by my next garden post, I’ll have good news to report on that front!

How’s your garden doing? Any harvests yet?

2014 resolution update – July

This is the first year that I’ve made a concerted effort to work on actually completing my resolutions for the year. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t aim too high and made them realistic. Here’s an update on how I’m doing at the halfway point in the year.

Read 75 books.
Today I will finish book #46, so I’m well on my way to that goal. I do have to get the sub-goals in of finishing Margaret Atwood’s canon (6 more books) and one Russian door-stop novel. I’ve been reading a lot of books that are part of a series, so I end up going through the series and it delays my next choices. Even if I don’t hit the sub-goals, I will still read more this year than in any year since graduate school. I’m also reading in genres outside of my comfort zone, which is pretty cool. (I am a total graphic novel and comic convert.)

Write letters on three issues to my elected representatives.
I haven’t done another one since this post on the DARK Act. I need to get on that. I might write next about funding to reduce hunger.

Run a marathon.
I’m in my 8th week of a 23 week training schedule. (Most plans are 18 weeks, but I am drawing mine out due to previous injuries and lingering issues with my IT bands.) Last week’s long run was 13 miles, and it was the first time I ran that far when it wasn’t a race, and only my fourth time at that distance at all. It was quite honestly one of the most difficult runs I’ve ever had – humid and disgusting outside, dehydrated big time. Everything was screaming at me to stop, and even though I had to walk more than I had hoped, I finished. (Which was really only because of the two awesome ladies I run with.) 

It’s been good to be on a training schedule and to be following it. I’ve put in 246 miles so far this year and that number is about to go way up because it’s going to get hard soon – after the holiday weekend we bump up to 15 miles for a long run and I go into distance territory that my body has never traveled. It’s an adventure, this marathon training. Don’t forget, I’m posting photos on Instagram under the hashtag #yearofthemarathon in case you want to follow along on the adventure.

Drink 64 ounces of water a day.
I really need to kick this into high gear during this marathon training, because even though I do drink water constantly, I am always fighting being dehydrated in this weather. And I was doing some research this week that dehydration while running can also increase your heart rate, which is something I’m hyper sensitive to as an asthmatic.

Start my home brew kombucha.
Done and done. Completely knocked this one out of the park, and it might be the coolest thing I accomplished this year (unless I do complete the marathon, that is). Read about it here

Sew a t-shirt quilt.
Making slow progress on this one. I finished cutting all of the squares for my quilt this weekend. (I’m technically getting materials together for two, planning to start with my own quilt to get the hang of it before I do Mark’s.) Now it’s time to fire up my grandma’s sewing machine, which will hopefully happen in July.

Can one new thing.
Technically I’ve met this goal with our strawberry vanilla jam, a variant I hadn’t made before. But since I think the spirit of this was for me to do something entirely new, I won’t count this done yet. But it will be full on canning season in the next couple months.

Plant a bee-friendly flower garden.
Didn’t really get around to planting specifically bee-friendly plants, but we definitely have more flowers this year compared to last, which is at least a step in the right direction.

Make the chickens some treats.
I actually completely forgot about this one, so this is a good reminder. Perhaps because of the heat and humidity, I’ll make something that’s refreshing for them.

Organize the basement.
The basement has stayed relatively organized since we transitioned one side of it to a work area for Mark. I still have a few things I’d like to do down there, especially to get a root cellar ready for later this year. But it’s better than it used to be (at least when Stormy and Vader don’t knock food bowls all over the place).

How are you doing on your goals for 2014? Share them in the comments!

movie review: the garden

While I was perusing the documentaries on Netflix recently, I found a short one about the attempt to save an urban garden. It wasn’t spectacular as far as documentaries go, but the events it concerned made me want to find out more. In doing a little research, I realized a longer documentary was done on the events – a film that was nominated in 2009 for an Academy Award for best documentary. So I ordered it from our library and checked it out.

The Garden is the story of an urban garden/farm that occupied 14 acres smack in the middle of South Central Los Angeles, an area that had been ravaged after the Rodney King riots in 1992. The farm had 350 plots, which provided food for families, most of which were low income. It was like an oasis of earth and growth surrounded by concrete and urban decay.

The documentary goes into the history and timeline in more depth, but basically the city of Los Angeles decided to sell the land that the farm occupied in a back room deal for drastically less than fair market value to the owner who had lost the land to eminent domain laws 15 years before. The farmers had been on the land because the city let them – they had no formal agreement. The owner decided he didn’t want the farm on the land and tried to have them evicted.

A legal fight ensued. I won’t tell you exactly what happened because the documentary tells it powerfully, but it wasn’t good. It was another tale of the rich and powerful using the government like puppets to advance their own desires, regardless of the needs of the community. 

It seems to me that governments should be doing anything they can to support groups who want to reclaim urban spaces that have been left to decay, particularly those that can be turned into gardens that feed people. I see a lot of rhetoric about low income families needing to “help themselves” – and this is a classic case of people who try to do just that and get thwarted by the roadblocks of power and money. 

The Garden left me wondering how willing I’d be to chain myself to a fence and be arrested if someone was trying to bulldoze the way I provided for my family. How much would I fight? Do we listen to those who do, or do we assume they are just disturbing the peace? This is a great documentary, especially for people who are interested in issues of economic justice and community activism, as well as urban agriculture. Definitely worth a watch, even if it leaves you unsettled (which is kind of the point anyway, right?).

garden update: late june

After the sad tale of our dead seedlings, you’d think the garden would be having a rough time. But amazingly, it’s going gangbusters – particularly the items we started from direct seed. 

My herbs are all doing well in pots. Basil is doing so well that I’ll have to move it into larger pots soon. (I was making do with what I had at the time and knew this would happen eventually.)

These are sunflowers that I planted after being given some free seeds at Farm to Table this year. I had no idea how they’d do or how many would survive, but they seem to be thriving and I would venture to guess will outgrow their pots too!

This little guy is one of the seedlings we thought was dead. Mark held on to two tomato seedlings that he thought had a chance and planted them in the chard bed. They seem to be alive!

A few pepper plants are doing well too, sharing a bed with some rows of chard that were direct seed. 

This bed of beans was ransacked by the chickens soon after the seeds were planted, so we didn’t know if we’d get anything at all. Mark put up some netting on the top of the bed so it’s sort of “caged” in. And it seems a decent amount of seeds were spared from the chickens’ talons!

There are four mini “beds” with cucumber plants. They are spots of earth that Mark dug up and put some light fencing around to keep the chickens out. These seem to all be coming up healthy as well.

Last year we grew one single corn plant, and enjoyed delicious corn off of it. This year we have a whole bed! It’s unlikely to be knee-high by the fourth of July, but it’s also doing well.

In the big tomato bed, the plants are also getting big. We had a whopper of a storm a few weeks ago and Mark bravely went out to stake up the plants in the rain as they were getting completely bombarded before they were really strong enough to withstand it. 

We even have a tiny tomato starting! The first one to actually start growing here. (We got one seedling from our farmers’ market that already had a baby tomato on it when we purchased it, so it didn’t feel like it counted. This one does.)

How are your gardens coming along? What did you plant and how are they faring?

my backyard oasis

When someone says “backyard oasis”, you probably think they mean a yard you would find on HGTV – some fancy landscaped place with some kind of fountain and lush gardens. Well, this is mine.

Our deck has never been really used since we moved into this house, on account of the fact that the previous owners didn’t take care of the wood, and so it’s kind of a mess of splinters and shards. So we’ve ignored it in favor of the cement patio, where we have a table and chairs, and do most of our outdoor entertaining. 

But this year I was wanting to use that space more, because I wanted to use some of it to house my herb pots, and also because I wanted a space to sit outside that was comfortable and that the chickens didn’t have access to, so I could be in peace. 

We moved the grill out of the way and off to the first corner, in an easily accessible spot that doesn’t block the rest of the deck. Put a pair of flip flops by the back door so my feet don’t get splinters. Bought two plastic Adirondack chairs at Lowe’s. Added these deck boxes – ones we previously had with the brackets moved to accommodate their size. 

I also decided to try hanging baskets again. I tried them two years ago and couldn’t keep them alive, but I’m giving it a shot again.

Mark also bought me a lily (my favorite flower) with my favorite colors (the colors of the sun – red, yellow and orange).

Now that I have colorful flowers, fragrant herbs and comfy chairs, I just add my coffee, a book and myself and it’s my backyard oasis. 

starting seeds: abject failure and plan b

Welp. Remember the seedlings we so lovingly started and then transplanted? Yeah, those ones that lived under Mark’s elaborate grow light complex that probably made our neighbors think we were growing pot for months? They’re gone. Dead. All of them.

It’s really hard to admit when a project that you think you have a handle on ends up as an abject failure. But we brought them outside too soon, and did not bring them in as often as we should have, so the cold got them first. And then the series of hail storms and torrential rains finished them off. Really I can’t even share a photo of them because it’s just too sad after all the hard work and love we put into them.

Right now I feel adamantly against trying to grow from seed next year, after the time and money we spent this season which was wasted. But the desire to try, try again is strong in me, so I’m sure come late winter next year you’ll see me posting about which seeds we’re starting. For now, we have to turn to Plan B. 

Thankfully we still had time to order healthy seedlings from Penn’s Corner, who supplied them from several of their member farms as well as Grow Pittsburgh. After prepping the beds last weekend, Mark planted the tomatoes and peppers yesterday and I potted the herbs.

This bed has pepper plants, as well as extra room where we’re going to try a couple of our direct-seed items. Perhaps we’ll grow something from seed after all this year.

We rotated tomatoes out of the bed where we had them last year (which has yet to be filled). This year they have plenty of room in this “pen” garden. 

We also collect eggshells during the garden season, dry them out and “give” them to the tomatoes. It’s worked well for us in the past. 

We also have a berry bush growing, which was rather unexpected, since we thought it wasn’t going to make it, after a shipping problem. Seems like it’s holding on so far.

So that’s the story of how we lost all of our seedlings, but still ended up with a planted (or mostly planted) garden. Now we just need to finish the last bed, fill up the existing ones and get the flowers planted, and the backyard will be complete. One step (and one failure!) at a time!