Vegetable gardening


Not too sweet and just spicy enough, these quick pickles will keep for weeks in the fridge.  Outstanding with egg salad, cream cheese on toast, or just straight from the jar, in our house they’re gone in a matter of days.  You can use the brine to pickle string beans or green tomatoes, as well.

Sweet and hot refrigerator pickles

Makes about 3 pints

2 lbs. pickling cucumbers, sliced 1/4-inch thick

1 yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced

3 tbsp. kosher salt

3 c. ice cubes

2 c. cider vinegar

1 1/2 c. granulated sugar

1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper (or more, if you like your pickles really hot)

1/2 tsp. coriander seed

1/4 tsp. tumeric

8 whole cloves

In a large mixing bowl, toss together cucumbers, onion, and salt. Cover mixture with a clean, dry dishtowel, then cover surface with ice cubes (keeping the salted cucumbers very cold ensures crunchy pickles). Refrigerate for about 3 hours, until vegetables have released some liquid.  Rinse well under cold running water to remove excess salt.  Drain and set aside.

In a large saucepan, combine vinegar, sugar, and spices.  Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add vegetables to pot and bring to just under a boil.  Remove pan from heat.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer vegetables to jars or other containers with tight-fitting lids.  Cover vegetables with brine, cover containers, and refrigerate.

Pickles keep, refrigerated, for several weeks.

After six weeks of unrelenting heat and scorching sun, the lawn is as good as dead but the garden is vegetable heaven. Pole beans — especially the purple-streaked rattlesnakes — are my favorite crop so far this season. The trellised vines are lush and pretty and produce handfuls of beans every day. We’ve picked half a dozen fat, pickling cucumbers (first two pounds are now hot and sweet refrigerator pickles) and scores of tiny sungold, red plum, and black cherry tomatoes.  The cilantro has gone to seed, which will yield a full jar of coriander once it’s dried and toasted.

Rattlesnake pole beans

Clockwise from top left: Opalka tomatoes, pickling cucumbers, coriander seeds, bell pepper

July sees our perennial flowers at their best, too.

Rudbeckia, coneflower, coreopsis, and lobelia

The vegetable garden is humming along nicely, producing a bounty of fat, sweet sugar snap and shell peas, peppery mache, and tender red and green leaf lettuces, plenty for salads every day. Our pole beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes are in bloom. There are ripe black raspberries to pick each morning and the resident squirrels are feasting on our strawberries (next year I will wrap the barrel in chicken wire). There are mountains of cilantro and mint and a steady supply of creeping thyme and oregano.

Clockwise from top left: sugar snap peas, mache, pole beans, leaf lettuces

Clockwise from top left: potted tomatoes, strawberries, cucumber blossoms, black raspberries

Flowers are in full bloom along the front and side fences. Finally, my novice landscaping efforts are starting to pay off — next year, the perennials will be large enough to divide and replant in new areas of the yard.

Clockwise from top left: coneflower, pineapple mint, potentilla, rudbeckia Indian summer

Planting is nearly finished for the season in our ever-expanding herb and vegetable (and as of this year, fruit!) garden.  It’s been a busy month.  To last year’s perennial herb patch of mint, sage, and lavender I added oregano and lemon thyme.  An especially sunny spot along a side fence is now home to a black raspberry bush (coming soon to keep it company:  a strawberry barrel!).  And we installed a second, 4×6-foot vegetable bed, terraced below an identical bed built last year in the sunniest corner of the yard.

Clockwise from top left: pineapple mint; black raspberry; lemon thyme; sage & mint

I planted the first vegetable box with English and sugar snap peas, three kinds of pole beans (French gold, rattlesnake, and purple), red and green leaf lettuce, mache, dill, red and white onions, and white radishes.  The second box has basil, parsley, cilantro, pickling cucumbers, red bell peppers, and 6 tomato plants (black cherry, sungold, san marzano, sweet plum, and two heirloom varieties).

Clockwise from top left: cucumber seedling; peas; lettuce; beans, radishes, onions, dill

And aside from a bunch of daffodils that never bloomed, this season’s perennial flowers are off to a delightful start.

Clockwise from top left: creeping phlox; armeria red ballerina; bachelor's button; wildflowers salvaged from a 2009 preschool potting project

Packed into my garden among the winding cucumber vines and towering tomato plants, basil is taking over.  I’ve tried growing this quintessential summer herb in years past without success.  Instead of producing full, lush bouquets, my young plants grew spindly and yellow, yielding barely enough leaves for one insalata caprese.  This year, I learned the secret to an ample basil harvest:  regular pruning.  To get your single-stemmed, young basil plant to branch out, pinch off the top set of leaves and few inches of stem just above the second set of leaves.  As the plant grows, it will branch from the pinch point.  Once the new branches each have a few sets of leaves, you can pinch their stems in the same fashion.  This produces a large, bushy plant that you can harvest at will — just make sure you always pinch off stems immediately above a set of leaves.

What to do with the copious fruits of my new-found knowledge?  Versatile, freezable pesto is an obvious choice.  We have no pignoli or Parmesan in our now nut- and dairy-free household, so I gambled that a simplified version using just basil, garlic, olive oil, and salt would be good enough.  Indeed it is!  What my sauce lacks in the earthy richness of the original it makes up for with a bright, peppery zing.  Use it in any way you would use traditional pesto — with pasta and grilled, sauteed, or fresh vegetables, on pizza, with chicken, or drizzled over thickly sliced tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese.

Basil-garlic sauce

Yield:  Makes about 1 c.

8 c. fresh basil leaves (from 2 fat bunches), loosely packed

4 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1/2 tsp. fine sea salt

1/2 c. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed

Combine basil, garlic, and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until finely chopped.  With machine running, slowly drizzle in oil.  You want a loose and spoonable — but not excessively oily — consistency.  If puree is too thick, add a bit more oil a tablespoon at a time.

Basil-garlic sauce keeps for up to 5 days in the fridge, or about 3 months in the freezer.

We ate it this week tossed with pasta, chicken, and cherry tomatoes from the garden, and on a pizza with sauteed zucchini and red onions (add fresh ricotta or mozzarella, if you like).

I’m pretty sure that if I had an afternoon with nothing to do but sit in the grass and watch the garden I could actually see the vegetables growing.  There’s something new to pick every day:  warm, juicy golden nugget and small red cherry tomatoes, slender carrots, a few lingering English peas, handfuls of sweet sugar snaps, fat yellow onions, and all the parsley and basil I could possibly need (pesto, anyone?).

And there’s more to come:  two cucumber vines (the seed packet said “bush cucumber” but the plants are winding their way through the tomatoes and over the edge of the bed) and one zucchini plant have at least a dozen yellow blossoms between them, and the black cherry (my favorite) tomatoes are nearly full size but still maddeningly green.

"Bush" cucumber vines and sugar snap peas

Zucchini and black cherry tomatoes

And the perennials along the fence — at least those the resident bunny isn’t eating — are starting to bloom.

Rudbeckia "Indian summer," potentilla, scarlet lobelia about to bloom, and pineapple mint

The vegetable garden is growing and growing!  Where the radishes had been, I planted four English pea and four sugar snap pea plants.  They’re climbing and flowering, and the kids have counted about half a dozen tiny pods so far:

The leaf lettuce I planted from seed (“Salad Bowl”) in two, two-foot-long rows, is yielding a salad or two every day.  Leaf lettuces, like indeterminate tomatoes, produce continuously; pluck off the largest, outer leaves and the inner ones keep growing.  June has been unusually cool so far, so I’m hoping to stretch the lettuce crop for another few weeks.

The onion stalks — I planted yellow and red sets — are about two feet tall.  It’s hard to tell how big the bulbs are, but I might try pulling one up this week to see how they’re progressing.

I planted one cherry pepper plant among some marigolds that are about to bloom.

The beets will be ready for harvest this week.  I’ve already bought one black cherry and two small red cherry tomato plants to replace the beets.  One sugar plum and two golden nugget tomato plants are already planted, staked, and covered with tiny yellow flowers.

I’ve tucked some parsley around the marigolds and plan to replace the last of the lettuce with basil in a few weeks.

Oh, and there are carrots and cucumbers, too!

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