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Bumper Crop: Tomato!

Last summer I couldn’t get any of my tomatoes to ripen, and this summer we’ve got tomatoes out the wazoo. I’m not complaining, mind you, because there’s nothing better than fresh field tomatoes. But we can only eat them so quickly. I decided to put some up for the winter, and am super surprised at how easy it was.

I used what we’ve got: Roma, early girl, and big boy. I tried one batch with citric acid, at the suggestion of my friend Karla. And I tried one batch like Vivian Howard, with lemon juice, salt and sugar. Both were super easy, so I think I’ll stick with Vivian’s because we always have lemons, salt and sugar on hand. I borrowed a large 16 qt gumbo pot from some friends down the way, but am going to get one to have on hand. The process was the same either way, and because it uses a hot water bath rather than a pressure cooker, you can consider me a forthcoming regular practitioner of canning.

Sterilize your jars and lids, either in the dishwasher or in the pot where you’ll be canning. Wash your tomatoes, then score them on the bottom. Bring a pot of water to a boil, then submerge your tomatoes for 30 – 45 seconds (I typically put them the water, then roll them around a couple times with my strainer spoon) and shift them over to a water bath. Peel, core and then quarter them. Add the quarters to your sterilized jars — I filled them to the top and pressed just a bit to make sure they were nicely filled. Run a knife around the edge to make sure you get out any air pockets. Then sprinkle 1/4-tsp of the citric acid over the top — or, if you’re using Vivian’s recipe, add the lemon juice, salt and sugar to the bottom of the jar before you add the tomatoes. Screw on the lid and place them down into the hot water, making sure you’ve got an inch or two above the top of the jars. Karla said to keep them at a low, rolling boil for 75 minutes, which I did, and it worked. Use jar tongs to remove the jars, and place them on drying racks on the counter. Leave them for 12 hours, and then move them to the pantry. I like an easy recipe, and this was definitely easy.

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Rain lilies

In May, my friend Maggie brought me a bunch of gladiolus and rain lilies. The gladiolus have since bloomed and faded, but the first little rain lily has finally shown her face. And, oh, how pretty she is! FYI, just ignore the bare ground … Mr. Sickles and I are in desperate need of mulch, but at this point we’re waiting for the fall.

Pink rain lilies (Zephyranthes carinata) are perennials native to Mexico, Colombia and Central America. They’re vibrant and delicate, and a shocking pop of color in an otherwise green portion of my garden. One great element of this little beauty is that we won’t have to dig her up to winter indoors, thank you baby Jesus. And with rain on the horizon, the rest of the bulbs are likely to bloom this week, too. Hurricane Isaias is forecast to head this way in some capacity, so batten down the hatches and stay safe, y’all.

Behind the Scenes: Tomatoes

In this week’s Chatham News & Record, I talked about tomatoes. I’ve been reading Max Brooks’ latest novel, Devolution, which is why I mentioned I’d be willing to arm wrestle a sasquatch for the last tomato. That opinion stands yesterday, today and tomorrow … because even if the sasquatch eventually does me in, I’ll die happy with a belly full of tomato yumminess.

I also mentioned Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. If you’re a child of the 70s and 80s, you know what I’m talking about. I grew up on an Army base in Germany, and we didn’t get the same shows in the mid-70s as American kids did in the states. I love Sesame Street, but didn’t see that until we got back state-side. Before that was the Electric Company, which I’m certain heavily contributed to my ADD. Because, HEY YOU GUYS!

But I digress … we’ll blame it on the Electric Company effect. Back to tomatoes! I always ask my community gardening experts about fertilizing and pest control, and Kathryn Robinson said, “Early on, I use an organic tomato plant fertilizer every few weeks.” She’s also the unicorn of farmers because the Japanese beetles in her garden “don’t seem to like the tomato plants.” 

If there are any tomato-whisperers out there, hit me up. I’m always looking for ways to improve my tomato game.

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Behind the Scenes: PEACHES!

If you saw this week’s column in the Chatham News & Record, you’ll understand why I put PEACHES! in all caps, with an explanation mark. Because PEACHES!

According to the Chatham County branch of the NC Cooperative Extension, “North Carolina’s climate and soils are well suited to grow many types of fruit trees.” There’s no shortage of full sun and slightly acidic soil in Chatham County, so it’s the perfect spot for peaches. We’ve been getting delicious peaches from the Pittsboro Farmers Market on Thursdays, and by the time we’re down to our last two in our household of three, we’ve got a Fight Club situation. 

But I caught up with Donna and Bill Moldovan of Pittsboro who have a small but enviable personal fruit tree grove. they’ve got seven varieties of peaches, along with nectarines, apples, plums, and apricots. I think if we had the same grove, I’d lay in the middle of it all summer and wait for fruit to just drop in my mouth. And die fat, dumb and happy. And full of fruit.

Shape Magazine had a great article this week on the health benefits of peaches. It said that peaches are low-calorie, a quick and easy source of fiber, have Vitamin C, help manage blood pressure, and contribute to healthy vision. So get out there and find some peaches. If you don’t have your own trees, or friends to share with you, check out the farmers markets and pick-your-own places along the Hwy 64 corridor. They’re not only tasty, they’re good for you!

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Blueberries

Our son and I could both eat our weights in blueberries. Last spring I added a blueberry bush to our Victory Garden, and last summer we got, maybe, eight blueberries. I didn’t even bring them inside to share; I just ate them right there in the rows. Guilt-free.

This summer, however, we’ve already pulled off about three dozen, and there’s as many still ripening. Maybe next summer we’ll have a whole pint that comes off at one time, that we can use to make blueberry muffins. Who knows!

Behind the Scenes: Fruitful Vegetables

The Optimistic Gardener | Fruitful Vegetables

By Dolly R. Sickles

This week in the Chatham News & Record I’m talking to my good friend, John Davis, whose wife Jean I’ve known for 25 years. John is just the coolest guy, with a totally interesting origin story

Born in Brazil to parents who were lay ministers with the United Methodist Church, John is a peaceful dynamo. Since his parents studied agriculture at Iowa State in the early 1950s, and their purpose in the small town of Lins, Brazil was to run the farm that supported the seminary school, I knew John would have great farming insight. 

You can read about his logic for planting in the ground versus raised beds, how he fertilizes, and the cool cistern watering system he developed in the article. I wanted to use this post for a true behind the scenes look at a childhood that was so very interesting and different than most of us. The Davis family lived in Brazil until John was 14, and during that time his peaceful father, Bob, turned out to be quite the radical Renaissance man.

In 1964, when the military took over the Brazilian government in a coup, Bob Davis stepped up to the plate. “Toward 1970, when we left,” John said, “dad was spending time with other people in the Methodist Church to get information out of the country, and to help get people under surveillance out of the country to safety.” They had a small apartment out back they used as a staging area to move people out, like an Underground Railroad. 

The Davis family constantly encountered exciting things—theirs was like a real-life Indiana Jones situation. There was the time when, one night, Bob was going to take a woman they’d been helping to the bus station so she could leave the country and get to safety in Argentina. Only, the police were there so she and Bob had to wait it out in the car. Another time John came home from school and headed to the vacant lot next door where he hung out, and noticed the ground was disturbed; he found a shovel and started digging. Turned out his dad and crew had been smuggling out documentation and information to US media sources that described the torture and imprisonment happening in the country. And then there was the period when Bob delivered the mail to missionaries and ministers in the field by plane—”a big, lumbering DC-3″ that needed a dump truck to start its propeller once. I kid you not, I could’ve listened to stories about John’s family for hours. 

And not to be outdone, Jean’s family also has an interesting history of gardening. Her mother worked for the famed Weston Nurseries in New England, as an azalea propagator. Jean also worked for Weston, though she was out with the garden crew planting bushes. “That was enough experience to know I don’t want to work in the garden again,” she said, laughing. “I like flower gardening, but I enjoy the fruits of John’s garden.” She turned out pretty good, farming aside, because she’s the President & CEO of MCNC. She’s basically a badass with a cool origin story, but that’s a topic for another day.

So let me assure you, the people around you are interesting as hell. You’ve just got to talk to them. Checking out their garden is a good way to break the ice. Get out there and be optimistic, people. And dig in the dirt while you’re doing it.

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Veggie Profile: Shishito Peppers

Do you shishito? We do.

I’ve been a fan of shishito peppers for years, having tried them the first time about four years ago in Manhattan. I was hooked immediately. We have them pretty regularly during the summertime, as both appetizers with a fresh, cold beer, or as a side dish for dinner. Today, I blistered them and served them alongside huevos rancheros for lunch. We nearly fought over them. They were that good.

New to shishitos? They’re mild peppers (Capsicum annuum) that you can eat whole, seeds and all. I’d say 19 out of 20 are mild, but there always one every now and then that slaps back. That makes it exciting! To blister them: heat 2 Tbsp of olive oil in a cast iron skillet over medium-high to high heat (you don’t want your pan to smoke). Add the peppers, whole (no stems), and turn them occasionally over a five minute period. They’ll visibly blister on the sides. Remove from heat and toss with a good pinch of sea salt. Serve hot. They’re a great addition or substitution for edamame.

Flying the Coop

Our cute little coop bit the dust a couple weeks ago. Seven inches of rain in three days tends to be dramatic, and in our case, our cute little coop couldn’t keep up. The side door collapsed, so we had to nail it shut. And that means our six chickens were not happy (or safe)–so we built a new one. “You should turn it into a AirB&B, and call it ‘Sleeping with Chickens’,” our friends said. LOL. All we have left to do is caulk it, paint it red, and add the finishing trim.

Behind the Scenes: Mimosa Trees

I took a poll to see who loves and who hates mimosas, based on this week’s column in the Chatham News & Record. It’s super scientific, y’all, so you can take these results to the bank. LOL.

Love ’em:

JL: I don’t have one but have pondering on getting one. They are so beautiful and delicate looking.

MT: I think they are beautiful. I wasn’t aware of unexpected volunteers – is that a big problem?

MCS: I’d take a mimosa tree over a redbud. Ridiculous number of volunteers.

DSE: I must admit I would love one, however, I am leery of more than I bargained for.

PS: Foe.

JG: Mimosas are lovely. When we were kids we used to pretend the blossoms were powder puffs. But they are invasive. And they are very weak trees, lasting about 20 years. They are probably less of a nuisance than crepe myrtles, which attract ants and are incredibly invasive. Chop down a crepe and leave one sprig and you’ll be fighting that sucker (see what I did there?) for years.

KSC: Even natives volunteer. It doesn’t make them invasive.

Hate ’em:

PD: Foe. Had one and got rid of it but they keep coming up and then I spray. They drop all their flowers just like magnolias. Ugh

JGM: I truly admire them only on someone else’s property …

It looks like the Friends have it. Form over function.

Our son used to play video games with a kid named Kyle, who was super smart and a nice little dude, but he constantly changed the rules of any game on the fly. You had to stay on your toes with that kid. That said, since I’m a writer and not a math-er, I’m going to say that eight out of nine of those polled in my widely acclaimed Facebook poll like mimosa trees. There were two questionable yes’s, so I’m not sure if they should get a full point.

Photo by Dolly R. Sickles.

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