Spring is Amazing

Lots of garden pictures to share today. Things have been growing like crazy these last few weeks! We are now gardening a total of four plots spread throughout the city: Crazy, I know, but also really fun. Each has taken on a personality of its own......

First, the exciting news: Dave and I have found a new house to move into in August! We're being kicked out of the house we're currently renting, and we were afraid we wouldn't find anything we liked as much. It took a a while, but we managed to find a house that was even better than we imagined!

This is the garden in the backyard of the new house. It gets great sun, and the current tenant didn't want to plant it this spring, so we've been given carte blanche to garden it before we even move in. How wonderful it will be to move into a house that has vegetables ready and waiting for us! Dave and I went over and planted on Friday. The scallions you can see in the far corner looked like regrowth from last year - we harvested some and left them for future picking. We worked a bunch of compost into the soil and went to town!

These are tomato plants that I bought at a local garden center. I would have started them from seed myself, but by the time I found out that I would have this garden to work with, it was too late. I got a variety of heirloom tomato plants: across the back is Mortgage Lifter, Wisconsin 55, Yellow Oxheart, and Amish Paste. The front row is four Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes. Around each bed I planted an L shaped row of sweet basil. Yes, I know it's all probably too close together, but I tried to plant it in blocks so at least we can get to the plants and harvest. It's so hard to imagine that these tiny little seedlings will grow to crowd each other out, but I have no doubt it will happen.

These beds are planted in carrots, turnips, beets, and in the far corner (you can barely see them) are four globe eggplants. I've never attempted eggplant, but it's one of my favorite veggies and the seedlings were cheap, so I decided to go for it.

This is the coolest thing about the new house - a chicken coop! A really nice one too. I have big plans for this - look for many chicken posts to come!

These are the current tenants - two Rhode Island Red hens, plus a Gold Lace Wyandote that didn't make it into the picture.

Now to the Main Street garden plot. This picture was taken last week when I planted the squash and melon starts that had been in the basement under lights all spring. Dave also put in some hot pepper plants (on the left hand side).

The weekend before that, I had seeded three rows of sweet corn - it was just barely coming up.....

The squash seedlings were pretty yellow - definitely ready to get in the ground!

These Charantais Melon plants looked pretty sad, but I still have high hopes for them.

Here is the plot today, a week after the previous pictures. You can see wet spots where I put in some dry bean seeds, to complete the three sisters planting of corn, squash, and beans.

The corn is growing noticeably every day. Pollination can be an issue for corn, especially small plantings like this one, but I'm hoping it'll be OK. If I need to, I can come in and hand pollinate them.....the squash and melons haven't grown much, but they are definitely established and are starting to put off new baby vines. I've been warned extensively about squash vine borer, so I'll have to be on the look out for their eggs.

I'm pretty excited about this planting. The beans should grow up the corn, and the squash will spread out underneath and provide a deterrent for raccoons and other small mammals that like to munch sweet corn. I hope it works. If not, it's still a fun experiment!

I planted these basil seedlings at the same time I seeded the corn. They're not really growing at all, but they're not dead, and I have a feeling they'll go crazy as soon as we get some real hot weather.

The dill, on the other hand, is growing like gang busters! Compare it to this picture from Mother's Day - wow! I'll have to come harvest some soon for some dilled potato salad....

Garden #3 - the plot at Quann Gardens. All of the potatoes are up and looking good. In between the two potato mounds, I put in a row of Canario beans. I used the beans I'd brought with me from California - I'm pretty sure they're bush beans and won't need a trellis. I planted them last weekend, but they haven't broken ground yet. I couldn't resist digging one up today to see what was going on, and indeed they have sprouted. It won't be long......the soil here is really heavy - not the best for beans, but I'm willing to take the chance. The asparagus in the far left corner is pretty much done - we let the remaining spears grow into big ferny shoots.

The lettuce I planted on mother's day is growing really nicely. It won't be long until we're picking it!

Last but not least, our home garden. Now that the trees have leafed out, this little plot doesn't get a whole lot of sun, but it's still producing some nice salad greens.

This is the second growth of pea shoots. I cut them for salad on Mother's day and let them regrow. They were a bit tough, but I've still been using them to add flavor and texture to my salads.

The following four pictures were all taken last weekend:

Red Russian Kale planted in March.

Chard, also planted in March. It's well established, but growing slowly.

Spinach. Over the course of the next few days, most of it started to go to seed, so we did a big harvest.

The seeds I planted in early May were just starting to come up...you can just barely see them in this picture.
This picture is from today - these are all greens from the March plantings (you can see the skeleton of the cold frame they were in). There's some noticeable growth, even from last week. It's time to eat this stuff!

And here are the seeds I planted earlier this month, also growing fast. I'm a little surprised that they all seems to be doing so well, even with the shade....there's arugula, spinach, kale, chard, and lettuce in these rows.

The sugar snap peas in this garden are leggy, but are starting to flower despite the shade. I don't expect to get a ton of peas from these plants, but it looks like we'll have at least a few.

These are the herbs that I started from seed way back in the beginning of March. Boy, are they growing slowly! I re-potted them this weekend into these 2 gallon pots. Hopefully that'll help give them a jump start. I can see now why most people buy culinary herbs as plants, not seeds - they have taken forever! They're healthy though, and looking good!
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Dandelion Wine

This post is a long time in the coming - I picked these dandelions quite a while ago, three weeks to be exact. The wine making process takes that long, and now it has to age till Christmas before we can drink it! Patience seems to be key with dandelion wine, and I'm really hopeful that it'll be worth the wait!

It took me almost three hours to pick all these dandelions - very enjoyable work, but tiring none the less. I got them from a park by my house - hopefully not sprayed with chemicals, but I have to admit, I was a little worried about dog pee....(maybe I shouldn't admit that here!)

This is my hand when I was done picking.

According to multiple sources, the "best" dandelion wine is made with the petals only, none of the green calyx. I started to take the petals off, but found it to be an almost impossible task for one person to accomplish in less than 12 hours. There's just no fast way to get the petals off a dandelion. It didn't help that when evening fell the flowers started to close up! I ended up picking the petals off only about a third of the flowers I'm harvested.

By about 8pm, they were pretty well closed up and really hard to deal with. I decided to try an experiment - I'd make one batch with the "pure" petals, and another with the calyx (green part) on. It would be an experiment in the difference that that little bit of green makes.....plus I was just about out of energy and motivation to pull any more petals off.....

The next step was to "brew" the flowers in water. This is the petals only (I'll call it Grade A)....

And this steamy shot is of the flowers with calyx (Grade B). I brought each to a boil for a few minutes and then let them steep, covered, overnight.

The next evening, I added some citrus peel and heated them again to boiling. I probably should have added the peels the night before, but I forgot, and I figured it might still get some flavor from them.

I boiled it for a while longer, and then strained it. I didn't have any cheese-cloth in the house, so I used an old flour sack towel and a colander. It was steamy, but worked well.

I wrung out the towel to get the last of the juices out....

Next, I added a whole bunch of white sugar (this is what ferments into alcohol.) and let it cool so I could add the yeast. I used champagne yeast from the brew shop on Monroe street.

Sliced up some lemon and lime.....

....and bottled it into three half gallon jugs with the citrus floating on top. It aged like this for 6 days in a cool dark cupboard.

Here it is after the initial fermentation. The one on the left is "Grade A," and the two on the right are "Grade B." The color difference was striking.

Here's a really bad closeup of Grade A. It was teaming with nice fizzy bubbles - a surefire indication of fermentation.

You can see the bubbles better in this shot from the top.

Grade B didn't look fizzy at all, although when I tasted it, it seemed quite alcoholic. I think perhaps the fermentation went a lot faster in this one and was pretty much over.

Grade B top view.

I strained them again (exactly how I did the first ones, but no heating this time,) and let them age another 2 weeks. The color difference wasn't nearly as striking after they got strained.

Finally, this weekend we bottled! I chose these small 350 ml bottles - they're pretty, and I had almost exactly enough wine to use up a case of 12 of them. Dave and I siphoned the wined into the bottles, and corked them with hand corker I rented from the brew shop. The siphoning process was neat, but we were too occupied to take pictures so I'll have to leave it for another post.

It was hard to get a good picture of the finished product - I finally turned it on it's side and got a decent one. It cleared up significantly over the past two weeks, and is now a nice clear honey color. We tasted a tiny bit and it seemed quite alcoholic and harsh, but intriguing none the less. I think age will do it good, but I guess we'll just have to wait till Christmas to find out!

This picture doesn't do the color any justice, but you can see all 12 bottles. There are four "Grade A" and eight "Grade B." I'm working on labels for them, but for now I put tiny dots with on the Grade A bottles. I put them back in the case the bottles came in and in the basement....it's a little frustrating to have to wait so long to taste something I've invested so much time in, but it'll be so fun to open them up sometime over the holidays and taste the results! It'll be like a little bit of spring during the darkest time of the year.

I would include a recipe here, but I didn't do a very good job of following one or recording how much of everything I used. I know I used pretty much equal parts water and dandelion, a lot of sugar, some lemon, lime, and a packet of champagne yeast. It you do a google search, you'll find a lot of recipes.....
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This is about an eighth of the wild ramps that Steph and I harvested in Door County last week. It was a real struggle to use them all up, but we've done it! It's just too bad we have to wait a whole year until they're in season again - I feel like I'm finally getting the hang of it...they're really quite good - like a woodsy mixture of spring onions and garlic....

Here's a sampling of the meals we ate them in:

Dave slow cooked this rack of buffalo ribs on the grill in tin foil with ramps and potatoes. The moisture from the vegetables really helped keep the meat tender and imparted a really nice flavor.

These aren't ramps, but we ate some with the morels in the picture above (they're the last of what I had from Door County). It seems almost too simple, but morels simply dipped in flour and sauteed in butter is really the best way to do them, hands down. This was the appetizer to an outdoor meal that included gin and tonics, good old fashioned Wisconsin bratwurst and ramps cooked with potatoes.

I finally used the ramps up this weekend in a soup, which luckily I managed to get a few pictures of:

Here are the bulbs all cleaned up and ready to go. It takes quite a while to get them clean and beautiful like this, but it's rewarding work - they're such pretty little things!

So many good things start with bacon! I lined the bottom of the pan and cooked it till it was almost crispy. This is local uncured bacon, so it took a little longer and didn't crisp up as well as other bacon, but it worked perfectly for this purpose.

When the bacon was mostly cooked, the ramps got chopped up even further and tossed in the pan. I let them cook for a few minutes, then added a bunch of chopped asparagus (from Tipi produce here in Madison).

Lovely! You can see how nice and translucent the ramps get!

I didn't have any stock on hand, so I added plain water and let the soup cook on very low heat for a few hours. I also threw in the greens from the ramps, which were looking a little yellow, but were in reasonably good shape. When it was all good and mushy, I blended it with the hand blender and added some whole milk, salt, pepper, and a tiny bit of curry powder and vinegar.

Not the most beautiful soup, but the flavor made up for it - Wow! Nothing tastes quite as springy as cream of asparagus and ramp soup!

I had leftover soup for dinner tonight with this lovely salad of spring greens (baby lettuce from the market and pea shoots from the garden) topped with some of the whitefish salad that Dave made from the smoked whitefish I brought home from Door County. It's like tuna salad, but better. Ah, spring is a wonderful thing!

Cream of Asparagus and Ramp Soup

8 Slices uncured bacon
1-2 Cups ramp bottoms, washed, trimmed, and roughly chopped
1 Pound asparagus, chopped
1 Quart water
2-3 Cups whole milk
Salt and Pepper to taste
1/2-1 Tablespoon white wine vinegar
1/2-1 teaspoon curry powder

Cook bacon until fat is rendered. Add ramp bottoms and cook until ramps start to become translucent. Add asparagus and cook until asparagus is just barely cooked. Add water and simmer for at least 45 minutes, preferably longer. When vegetables are very tender, blend until desired consistency. Add milk, and season to taste.

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