I think we can safely say that this summer’s sweet corn crop was a success.  On Friday, Amelia and I picked 25 more ears; that brings us to a grand total of 29 ears of corn. A few are a little oddly shaped (like a hourglass?), but most of them look like corn should look. I just want to emphasize this for the skeptics: 29 ears of corn.  And there are still a few ears left that will be ready later. Amelia and I are officially moving to Iowa next summer.

Sometimes it’s fun to think about the garden in terms of dollars–how much money am I saving by growing my own produce? Obviously, this isn’t the real reason I garden. You know me: I am not this shallow.

Tomatoes are about $3.50 a pound. Mixed greens are usually $2.50 to $3.50 a bag depending on the size. Cucumbers are…well, cucumbers are cheap because everyone has too many, so I’m probably not saving much money there.

The last time I paid attention to the price of corn at Farmer’s Market  (and I only paid attention so that I could see how much my corn was worth), corn was about $1 for 3 ears. So, about 29 ears at 3 ears for $1 is around $10. I can sense your sheer amazement as I write this.

I never think to account for any deductions like labor or the cost of seeds, cages, and marigolds to keep the bugs away, though. So, counting all of that, I have probably saved somewhere around -$434.42 by gardening. I think I’m being generous. What’s the going hourly wage for gardening help these days anyway?

29 ears split between two people, one of whom has been getting huge bags of free corn through her awesome job at the Farmer’s Market (not me), is a lot of corn. My loving parents also gave me a dozen ears of corn this week.

What to do when you have an abundance of corn?

Have a party, of course, a party centered around corn. In all actuality, I did not have a corn-themed party (although I’m not ruling it out for the future). I just invited friends over for a potluck. Potlucks are great, but they normally result in an odd, albeit delicious, combination of food: Mexican casserole next to deviled eggs next to watermelon next to cucumber salad next to three different kinds of brownies. Sometimes people bring frozen corn dogs; I have not figured this out yet.

Our potluck was not like this. Somehow, everything ended up going together. It was super American. Not Ammerrrrican, but American: fried chicken, sweet corn, fresh green beans with potatoes (courtesy of Grandma Pat), homemade pasta salad, pistachio marble cake, vanilla bean ice cream (with only 5 ingredients!), and strawberries. We also went to the garden so they could see where part of their meal was from; my friends are good sports.

If you have a lot of corn, you can also carry it in your purse and give it to people or cook it, cut it off the cob, and freeze it. I have done both of these things with the extra corn, too, but they are less interesting.

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Leaning Tower of…

July 22, 2010

I go to the garden (almost) every day, sometimes multiple times a day.

At the beginning of gardening season, I was embarrassed to admit this. I would limit garden talk (much like I attempt to limit Wilco or Bruce Springsteen talk. I hate becoming a caricature of a person: “Kara likes Wilco and Bruce Springsteen and gardening”). I might have lied and said that I didn’t know how the green beans were doing, even though I had just looked at them that morning and knew that they were just starting to do that cool horseshoe thing they do early in their growth.

One day a friend asked how often I went to the garden. This is when I realized it was every day. I felt like it made me weird/obsessive, so I answered honestly and then tried to justify my response. Not only did it make me feel a little obsessive, I also thought about “a watched pot never boils” in terms of gardening. This is not true. A watched pot boils and a watched garden grows. It looks different every single day.

I’m over all of that now. I go to the garden most days. I like going to the garden. It’s my favorite part about summer. Why be withholding? I’m not Lucille Bluth, and I’m not getting off. Plus, if you run into me, I’ll probably mention the garden at least once, so you’d know anyway; I might as well admit that I go daily. I’m transparent…or am I?

Sometimes I actually do work, sometimes I go to harvest, and other times I just go to go. It always takes at least 15 minutes. Even if I go to just go, I find a vine that’s taking over the zinnias, basil that needs to be harvest, or a new bloom on the pepper plant. If we are going somewhere and I ask you if we can stop by the garden, that it will only be a second, don’t listen to me; I am lying to you, but not on purpose.

Now I have even more reason for going daily: I did not visit for two days and disaster struck. I went for a walk this morning and decided to end it in the garden. This is a pretty common place for walks, runs, bike rides, birthday parties to end.

Tomato plant down. I think we must have an some pretty strong winds during the 18 hours I was in good ole Missouri. Somehow the plant had managed to not break, but it definitely needed my help. It’s really not that surprising that it fell over; it’s been leaning ever since we planted it, and I’ve been doing my best throughout the summer to shove it back into place.

The photo on the right shows a close up of what’s most perplexing about this to me. The stake used to be inside the cage; it was tied to the tomato plant. Somehow the stake got on the outside of the cage; also, the yarn we were using to hold the plant to the stake was not broken.  Sabotage? An illusion?

I went to the apartment and got scissors and yarn. I removed the stake, did my best to shove it back into the ground (inside the cage), and straightened the parts of the cage that were bent. Then, I re-tied the plant to the stake with yarn in five places. I trimmed some of the heavier parts of the plant (the parts that seemed to be causing the most leaning).

I think my finished repair job is decent. It still leans some because the plant has just gotten used to growing in a weird direction (this is why you should take care of things when they first become a problem). What I’m most proud of in my repair is my ingenuity: I crammed some rocks under the plant/cage to keep it from leaning. I have no idea if this will work for long, but it is helping it to stand up straight.

I’m sure you remember the Great Corn Debate of May 2010. Gloves came off. Friendships were broken. Families split in two as brothers fought brothers. Lives were lost.

Thankfully, we have closure to this tumultuous era. The results are in: sweet corn can be grown in a small plot.

Amelia and I were working in the garden Friday night digging up the green bean plants (more on this in future blogs). I was crouched over the innermost row of green beans, so my head was nearly in the corn stalks. When I tried to move one of them out of the way, I saw the following: kernels of corn. And not small, underdeveloped kernels, but actual, edible white and yellow kernels. 

Even though she’s told me this a million times before, I asked Grandma Pat last week during our Sunday afternoon photo conversation what I should be looking for to know the corn was ready. I always feel like I should double check. She said what I already knew: the silks would get brown; I could also feel the ears themselves to see if they felt like they were filled out. Per her usual reminders, she told me to be patient because it probably wasn’t ready yet. So, I’d been watching the corn carefully, but I didn’t think that it would be ready for at least two more weeks.

We carefully pulled the husks back on the ear that I had spotted (still leaving it on the stalk so we could leave it on longer if need be) to check to see if it was ready. It was, so we broke it off and pulled the husks back even more. Even though there were some parts that hadn’t filled out completely and a few spots the bugs had eaten, the ear looked good. We decided to check the other ears with brown silks so we could get everything that was ready before the bugs got to it. In the end, we had a total of 3 ears of corn, and boy, were we ever happy. Amelia took 1 ear and I took 2 (we figure it will even itself out soon). I shucked it and put it in the refrigerator.

I decided to have a friend over for dinner the next evening–this called for a celebration. She confirmed that she could come. I invited another friend, too, and because my friends generally like each other, she responded affirmatively.

Then I realized that I only had 2 ears of corn. I started brainstorming ways to split 2 ears equally between 3 people; it got a little confusing…and kind of sad. I knew that one of my friends would offer to not have corn, and then I would feel bad; I would offer to not have corn, too, but I really wouldn’t want to do that.

I needed to add some stuff to the compost bin, so I walked to the garden. I decided to look at the corn while I was there to see if any more was ready: success!

Like true Midwesterners, we simply boiled and buttered the corn. Nothing fancy.

And as expected, the sweet corn didn’t need anything fancy, nor did it need our help… in fact, I don’t think it even needed me to cross-pollinate it. Jennifer and Katie were very patient with my requests for photos of the entire corn-cooking process. They’re true blog stars.

The last week or so has proved that I am becoming a garden nerd…if there was any uncertainty about this, which I’m guessing there wasn’t. I’m one of those proud nerds, though, so don’t worry about my self esteem or anything.

The First Reason I Know I’m a Nerd: I started writing a longer nonfiction piece about this about a month ago…well, not about me being a nerd, but about gardening, specifically urban and/or community gardens.  It’s pretty formless so far and I’m still figuring out what I want to say…writing is a great outlet for figuring things out, but creates quite the mess while you’re actually doing the figuring out.

The Second Reason I Know I’m a Nerd: The reason above doesn’t seem that nerdy. In fact, I didn’t think I was a nerd until I started searching for books at the library. I realized that the list of books I was interested in reading was really long. When I went to get said books, I realized that there were entire rows dedicated to gardening, shelves reaching to the ceiling. I mean, if I’d thought about it for more than 10 seconds, I would have known there would be a lot of books on gardening, but seeing them made it real. I limited myself to 3. If I disappear or suddenly stop responding to all forms of communication, I am in Anschutz on the 1st floor somewhere near the call number SB 457.3 H63 2009. Please bring me snacks, preferably apples and peanut butter.

Third Reason: I went to Omaha this weekend to visit a certain law student. On the way there, I just about lost it…and by it, I mean my cool. KPR started to cut out right when All Things Considered got to the segment where people across the country (or in this case, the Midwest) tell stories about summer jobs. The featured job: detassling corn.

Fourth Reason (in two parts): We did many things in Omaha: shopping in Old Market, couch delivery, delicious falafel served by an attractive mustachioed man, the Woodman Tower, Toy Story 3 in 2D (take that, $11 3D movies),  the boot!, laying on the floor and eating animal crackers until 2 am, and more…let your imaginations run wild. Even though I knew about these cool things, I was most excited about the prospect of Farmer’s Market (aside from seeing Ms. McCleery of course). Omaha has multiple Farmer’s Markets. We went to the one in Old Market. It is bigger (although not much) than the one in Lawrence, which mainly just means that there are more samples and that they don’t run out of stuff as quickly.

I bought some lovely carrots and potatoes and even got to see what a successful green bean crop looks like. If you can actually grow them, then you get to package them in cute little wooden boxes and sell them for $3 a box. This guy was livin’ the dream: I realized my complete nerd-dom when I saw the community garden that was near Molly’s new apartment. I started exclaiming “That’s a garden!” and Molly turned down the Usher song that was playing on the radio and calmly said “Yes, that’s one of the community gardens in Dundee.”

When I went for a run later, I stopped in and did some exploring. Then I asked Molly if we could go back on our after dinner walk, and she was patient while I took photos and showed off my plant identification skills.

I liked the signs they have marking the different plots. I like that their rainbow chard has significantly fewer holes from bugs than ours at the garden in Lawrence does. I like that they have picnic tables in the middle of the garden. I like that they have plots designated as “food pantry;” I want to donate more food, and I think I just need a little nudging/encouragement to make that happen. If I lived in Dundee (and I obviously would if I lived in Omaha since that’s where Molly lives), I would definitely garden here.

But really, all this talk of nerdy-ness isn’t a surprise. We all knew this. I didn’t need to write this blog: I have a framed sketch of pea pods in my room.

Near the beginning of our garden’s life, I met another gardener, Matt, who told me about hand-pollination. He was not wearing a shirt. He said this was important when you had only a few rows of corn, because it was hard for the wind to pollinate such a small area (you’ll recall from earlier blogs that corn has to cross-pollinate in order to actually make corn). He explained this process to me no less than three times: collect pollen in a paper bag and transfer that pollen to the corn silks. In order for the corn to be more than just a cob with nothing on it, each kernel has to be touched by pollen–woah.

He said this should be done when the corn started to tossle, and since my corn was only about knee-high at that point, I filed this information away into the “Later” folder. Lots of things get filed there: re-vamping my English 102 course for the fall, changing the brake light, re-reading Gravity’s Rainbow. I would worry about it later. Eventually later actually happens, though. It’s the week before classes and I have to rush to rewrite the syllabus for my course or I finally decide that having a wreck because of a nonexistent brake light isn’t really worth the five dollars a new bulb will cost;  luckily, Thomas Pynchon will never find me, nor will I be able to find him.

Last week was “later.”  I had tossles. I had silks. I did not have paper bags. Meatloaf says: Two out of three ain’t bad.

One afternoon over lunch, I researched hand-pollinating corn. I found quite a few about.com-like sites and others with extremely technical jargon; I avoided both. After just a little digging, I found a forum titled “Earthbox Forum.”  The content seemed okay, so despite the dancing emoticons, I decided to use it.

Earthbox Forum led me to this site:  http://www.maizegdb.org/IMP/WEB/pollen.htm. This website used a lot of words and phrases I was unfamiliar with, but it had videos. Sold! I also liked their use of maize, not corn, maize. I watched a few videos (see section 4.2) and the nice lady with the big glasses and intense tool belt helped me learn how to go about hand-pollinating. I also learned about a method that didn’t require paper bags. Since I’ll be moving soon and don’t want to acquire anything that I will eventually have to pack into a box (even if it’s just a package of paper bags), I went with this.

So here’s my attempt:

Step 1: Choose a tossle and cut it from the stalk.

Step 2: Rub the pollen (the male part) onto the corn’s silk (the female part). When the tossle is out of pollen, choose a new tossle.

This is when I got worried. The pollen just seems to get stuck in the silk; I couldn’t figure out how to get the pollen into where the actual kernels would be. This is the part that Matt made sound crucial, which makes sense: this is where it would happen.

That was it. No more steps. I was relieved to see that there was a lot of pollen on the ground around the corn stalks, so even if I messed up, the wind might be spreading the pollen.

Maybe I’m overcomplicating this. Male part + female part=life; in nature, this formula usually seems to work.

Apron

July 5, 2010

I’ve been a little lazy in the kitchen the last few weeks. I am still eating at home and preparing what I eat. That is to say, I haven’t yet succumbed to pizza from the Papa John’s that’s within walking distance from my apartment, Hungry-Man frozen dinners, or a bowl of cereal, but I haven’t put on my apron for awhile. I only put the apron on when I’m really cooking.

I perform the following tasks daily, some of them multiple times:  1) foraging 2) chopping 3) sauteing in my tiny cast iron skillet 4) roasting. 20 minutes is my maximum wait time for a meal.

There are so many vegetables right now, but the funny thing is that they’re not even vegetables from our individual plot; aside from that one green bean and a lot of basil, I’ve eaten nothing from that plot. The vegetables that are currently taking over my refrigerator are ones that are growing in the communal plot (which I guess I am technically helping grow), are cheap at Farmer’s Market, or come to me via Ben Franklin’s greatest invention: the post.

It’s not that I don’t have time to cook (let’s face it, I’m semi-unemployed…I have more time than ever). It’s also not that I mind having all these vegetables, I love it. I just feel like I have to eat them constantly to keep up. So my laziness is purposeful.

I decided last week to do some cooking that required effort. I have a group of friends that eats together most nights of the week. People take turns cooking. It works out pretty well, you just have to make a lot of food. But then you don’t have to make food for awhile. Maybe this is another reason I’m not cooking much.

Two weeks ago I made the best pizza I have every made–homemade whole wheat crust with fresh basil, spinach, and zucchini. The basil is what really made this typical pizza great, so I knew I wanted to make something for my friends with basil in it. Cue Italian food.  Since zucchini is currently 75 cents at the Farmer’s Market (I’m sure it will be about 25 cents soon) and since I’ve always wanted to try substituting zucchini for pasta in lasagna, I decided to try this recipe: http://italiandish.squarespace.com/imported-20090913150324/2009/2/11/my-moms-zucchini-lasagna.html I’m sure this recipe/idea isn’t new to anyone, but it was new for me, so you get to read about it.

Definitely an apron recipe.

Because I was cooking for other people, my goal was to follow the instructions exactly. I did not do this, though. When making lasagna, I never follow the recipe. It’s unnecessary. It’s sort of like making baklava:  the key is to get all the ingredients in there; after you do that, no one is going to know if there are 12 layers of phyllo dough alternated with butter or only 8.

I started out being really meticulous. I boiled the zucchini for 10 minutes and then scalded the top half of my fingers on my right hand getting them out of the water quickly. I built a tower of zucchini and paper towels on a plate to let them soak. But then I decided that since I don’t really like ricotta cheese, I would only use half the amount. And then I got totally enthralled with Ira Glass’s voice on This American Life and put all the bread crumbs in at once. 

I was mostly pleased with the finished product. I don’t have a photo of it, though, because I baked this (and another more traditional lasagna) at a friend’s house. They have a large table. My only complaint was its sauce-y-ness. I worry that lasagna will be too dry (sort of like a dry baked potato…not good), so I overdo it with the sauce. This one was extra sauce-y because of the water in the zucchini. I secretly scooped some of the sauce out while it was baking to prevent it from overflowing. I think it still did. Other than the sauce-y-ness, I was pleased. I served it with whole wheat garlic bread and a salad picked that day from the garden. As far as I can tell, there were no bugs in the salad, always a tiny victory when eating straight-from-the-garden lettuce.

I want to get back to actually cooking soon, to wearing the apron. Maybe I value work too much. When I feel like lasagna again, this is next: http://italiandish.squarespace.com/imported-20090913150324/2008/11/8/roasted-vegetable-lasagna.html