Sunday, August 31, 2014

Lemon Grass

Thai soups are frequently on the menu at our home, and lemon grass is the key to adding that hint of citrus so characteristic of their flavor. Lemon grass is also used in teas to add a bit of citrus taste. I first grew it at my previous home. When I found it at the nursery it was a tidy small thing in a 4 inch pot. Not knowing any better, I assumed it would grow to be about a foot tall so I planted it in the vegetable garden. It grew and grew. It got taller and wider. It was a beast, finally reaching at least 4 ft high and wide. 

Although I love lemon grass, in this garden I didn't want to commit that much space to one. This time I planted the lemon grass in a 12 inch pot. Being confined in the pot has kept it controlled. We have enough of the herb for our use, and it looks pretty at the back of the garden between the blueberry barrels.
As you can see, I'm clearing my beds in preparation for fall planting. 
It is a nice focal point, being a symmetric arching plant. Here it is both ornamental and delicious without being obtrusive.
While we're looking, isn't it amazing that the bower vine is still blooming? It has been in bloom since March. Read about it here.

Back to the lemon grass. I live in Southern California, zone 10. Lemon grass can be grown outside in zones 9 and higher. For cooler climates it can be grown indoors in a sunny location. The edible part is the base of the stalk which is thickened like a scallion. Propagation is through root cuttings. You can purchase lemon grass stalks sometimes in the grocery store. To propagate it, remove about 2 inches from the top and place the root end in a container of water. Place this in a sunny location and roots will sprout in a couple of weeks. Once the roots have reached 1-2 inches, it can be planted in the soil.

To harvest the stalks for cooking, I use my clippers and cut the stalks near the soil. 
Clearly I haven't pruned away the dead growth so it's a mess up close.
I peel the outer layer off then slice it diagonally into 1-2 inch stalks. Letting the pieces steep in the soup releases the citrus flavor. Because it is a woody grass, it is not eaten but rather it is discarded before serving.

Being vegan, I love coconut-based soup with vegetables and herbs. I don't have a recipe, but this is how I make my simple soup.

Thai Vegetable Soup - Andie's Way

In a sauce pan, combing the following:

One can of organic coconut milk (14oz)
Two lemon grass stalks with outer leaves removed, cut diagonally into 1-2 inch lengths
Some fresh ginger minced or sliced (1 tsp to 1 Tbsp depending on how spicy you want your soup.)
One sliced fresh serrano chili for a little extra heat. 
Heat this combination on low for a few (5-7) minutes until you can smell the lemon grass and ginger. Remove from heat and pour the contents through a sieve, retaining the flavored coconut milk. Discard the lemon grass, ginger and chili.
Combine the flavored coconut milk with asparagus cut diagonally (or whatever veggies you have - bok choi, carrots, potato, and tomato are all wonderful). Cook on low until veggies are cooked. I prefer to barely cook my veggies so they are a bit crisp. 
Serve with some chopped Thai basil sprinkled on top, and a wedge of lime so you can add a little more citrus flavor if desired. I tell you, it is delicious.

Sometimes I will put some cut lemon grass pieces into the water when I'm cooking rice to give it a bit of flavor, especially for Asian meals.

Another thing I love about lemon grass is the fresh scent. It reminds me of magnolia blossoms but less sweet and definitely less potent. Lemon grass candles are one of my favorite aromas, fresh and exotic. When I harvest some lemon grass to make soup, I often cut an extra stalk or two to put in a vase for a fresh little addition with a beautiful hint of lemon.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Honeydew Melon in Coconut Milk - Delicious

You could say we have had more than our share of melon this summer. Having an abundance of melons led me to search for new recipes. Honeydew melon in coconut milk has become a favorite. It's a Thai version of strawberries and cream and it is divine.
It could use a little garnish, but it's eaten so quickly no one cares how it looks, kind of like a chocolate chip cookie that falls apart coming out of the oven.
1 can (14 oz) unsweetened coconut milk
3 Tbsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp fresh lime juice, or to taste
1 large honeydew melon, chilled

Stir together coconut milk, sugar and lime juice in a small metal bowl until the sugar dissolves. Put ice and water into a larger bowl then set the metal bowl into the ice water. Chill, stirring occasionally, until cold, approximately 6 min. 

Cut the melon in half, discard the seeds. Scoop melon into balls using a melon ball cutter or cut into small cubes.

Divide the melon into serving dishes and pour the coconut mixture over the melon.  

This recipe is from Gourmet Today, edited by Ruth Reichl. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Using Diatomaceous Earth to Control Ants

Ants have made their home in one of my garden beds. This became obvious yesterday as I cleared the bed to prepare it for fall planting. Suddenly they were everywhere, upset that I had destroyed their home. I had read that diatomaceous earth (DE) could be used to kill ants and I had purchased a bag to have on hand just in case. I can now assure you that it works.

Diatomaceous earth is a fine white powder that looks like flour. It is made of the skeletons of tiny marine creatures called diatoms. Under a microscope the powder actually has sharp edges which are abrasive to the exoskeletons of insects such as ants, earwigs, roaches and silverfish. When the insects crawl over it, the powder scratches off the outer waxy coating causing the insects to dehydrate and die. 

It is not a bait, so the insects will not be drawn to it. This means that to be effective, it must be placed where the insects will crawl over it. Diatomaceous earth must also be dry to be effective. Once it becomes damp, the tiny pieces won't coat the insect and it won't kill them, so it must be reapplied often to work.

My ants were making a trail along the 2 x 6 of my raised bed so I spread the powder along the top of the board, and also spread it on the sides to be sure the ants had no way of avoiding it. 

Because I had never used it before, I stayed and watched what happened to see if it was working. Sure enough, the ants would crawl into it then gradually I started seeing ants fall off the wood and die. After about 30 minutes, what had been a army of ants was now a few survivors. It really worked. I'm a believer now.

The good thing about diatomaceous earth is that it is non-toxic to animals and humans. But it is important to know that there are two type of DE. One is food grade which can actually be eaten by people and is placed in grain bins to keep the insects out. This is the type you want to use in the garden. The other type is pool grade which is used in some types of pool filters. This is not the type you want to use in the garden. Although food grade DE is safe to eat, it is not safe to inhale it and DE can be an eye irritant so it is best to use a mask and goggles when applying it.

I used the DE yesterday and when I went out to the garden this morning there were no ants to be found. That's one small victory for this urban gardener!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Pomegranates - Our Bumper Crop!

Yes, we have lots of pomegranates! I'd say 104 is lots. As in, what are we going to do with all of them? This is our first large crop and it is surprising. Usually we have around 25 nice pomegranates, nothing like this.
Who knew the pomegranates would match my curtains? 
Pomegranates have been harvested in the Middle East since hundreds of years B.C. They are suited to dry warm climates like my Los Angeles area home and will grow in USDA Hardiness Zones 7-10. I planted mine 20 years ago in the most neglected space of our property, an area that has no irrigation. 
I was looking for a small tree to shade our ancient air conditioner which is located in a sunny space near a wall. 
Because we have a low power line there, the tree needed to be small and pomegranates grow as a multi-trunk shrub or they can be pruned to tree form, and will grow to 10-15 feet high and wide. 

This space gets no regular water, so after planting it I watered it regularly for the first year to get it established. Then I watered it deeply every few weeks during the summer for the next couple of years. Now that it is mature, it gets only rain water (and not much of that), and a little bit of water condensation run-off from the air conditioner during the summer. I fertilized it when I transplanted it, and that was the last fertilizer it has received. It is thriving under these arid conditions and this year we have a bumper crop.
Pomegranates tolerate a variety of soil conditions including slightly alkaline soil. They do require good drainage and full sun (at least 6 hours of sun). Once established they generally do not require feeding. 

The trees are pretty, green leaves are attached by red stems. 
The waxy bright orange-red flowers create a showy display against the foliage. There are no blossoms on my tree so a couple of pictures of fallen blossoms will have to suffice.
Pomegranate potpourri
Take care when purchasing a pomegranate tree/shrub as there are ornamental fruitless varieties sold as landscape shrubs. These will flower but no fruit will be produced. It takes several years for a pomegranate tree to bear fruit. The first few years it may bloom but the blossoms will fall without setting on fruit. I have noticed that my yields are improving as the tree matures, although I understand that most trees gradually become less productive after about 15-20 years.

As the fruit ripens in the fall, the color becomes more red. We harvested some and made grenadine syrup, and although the fruit is not fully ripe, the syrup is delicious. If left on the tree, the fruit will eventually split. This is the point of peak ripeness so pick it or the squirrels will eat it for you.
We have plans to make jelly, and we'll use some in salads. That will leave lots of pomegranates, so I hope for suggestions on what to do with this great crop. What is your favorite thing to make with pomegranates?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

It's Melon Time!

Step into my backyard and the scent hits you. It's melon time. This is the year of the melon in my little garden. So far we have harvested 12 honeydews, 7 cantaloupes and 2 Crenshaws. Today I counted 23 more on the vine that are fist-sized or larger. Many more thumb-sized ones are scattered about. That's amazing to me considering they are grown in one 
4 ft x 12 ft bed with a spread of about 14 ft x 14 ft.

I am growing 3 types of melons (honeydew, Crenshaw and cantaloupe). They are planted in four mounds and the mounds were planted in succession starting in March. You can see the melon mounds on the right side of the bed, planted next to the strawberries and parsley. Each mound has a different variety of melon and the soaker hose is looped over each mound. For details on how/when I planted the melons, you can read about it here.

The melon bed is next to an empty area so the vines have room to grow. Here are some pictures from May. The melons are in the foreground on the right, spilling into the empty area.
May 23, 2014
May 30, 2014
Here are the melons in July.

They have filled the empty area and are climbing up and through the little fence and onto the pavement. My dad's dog came to visit and helped herself to 4 cantaloupes that were growing on the pavement so I added a little fence to keep her out and the melons safe.
Now I'm training the vines to climb that new fence. Next year I think I'll run fencing down the middle of my melon bed and train them vertically. 

I have been spraying them weekly with Epsom salts to help with chlorosis (1-2 Tbsp per gallon of water). I sprayed with soapy water when the aphids were bad last month (1 tsp per gallon of water). A few weeks ago I found some powder mildew on one section so I removed the affected leaves and started spraying every 10 days with baking soda which has really worked 
(1 Tbsp per gallon of water). The mildew is gone. I have leaf miners but haven't done anything to try to control them. They are happily tunneling through the leaves but their activity has seemed to slow down lately. I have been feeding the melons only with compost tea although I added compost before I sowed the seeds. Mine are watered deeply by soaker hose every other day. 

We have been eating melons everyday. I'll share some ideas later for tasty melon treats.

For now, here are some more pictures.
Cheerful blossom
Furry baby melon
I think I'll go have some frozen melon slices...such a refreshing treat on a hot summer day!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

How to Repair a Hose Leak - Tips for Beginners

I came outside to walk through the garden in the morning as I do each day, and found a little stream running down one of my garden paths. That was my first clue I had a problem.
A quick manual test of my watering system revealed this:
I had a fountain of water spraying over the fence and into the ally.
We are in a drought in California and I have written about how I try to conserve water in the garden. What a shame to see all that water wasted. This was the first time I have had a hose blow like this. I am thankful it didn't happen when we were away for a few days. At least I know it only was leaking one day.

I didn't see any other areas of the hose with a leak so I decided to repair the hose rather than replace it. Replacing it would be really hard at this point in the season because the melon vines have grown over the soaker hose.

This is an easy repair. Be sure to buy the correct size fitting as there are different sized hoses. My soaker hoses are 1/2 inch diameter. 

Here is what you need to make the repair; hose mender, screwdriver and tool to cut the hose.
The mender looks like this once the packaging is removed.
Find the hole.
Cut out the section of the hose that has the leak. Try to cut the ends squarely.
Loosen the screws and slip the green clamps over each hose end.
Push the black connector piece into the hose ends. Push it all the way in so the hose pushes up against the plastic rim.
Slide the green clamps close to the cut ends of the hose and tighten the screws. 
It is best to tighten each screw a little bit at a time so that the two pieces stay parallel to each other. By tightening each screw a few twists at a time, the pieces stay aligned to make the best seal. 

Now test your system to be sure there are no leaks.