What to do With Gumbo

Tales of Gumbo

by Celia Hayes

I may be defeated in my ambitions this year to have bounteous crops of tomatoes and zucchini squash … but by way of comfort, the peppers of various sorts and the okra plants are multiplying and producing like champs. The encouraging thing about the okra plants is that I have been able to grow a fair number of plants from seeds left in the pods that I let go last year … and that the darned things do grow like weeks. However, the okra pods of the variety that I have propagated do have to be harvested before they get to be about three inches long; otherwise they are tough and woody to the point of inedibility. (But still good for gleaning seeds for the next crop.) I would actually consider planting a good-sized patch of okra in the front garden, for the flowers are actually rather attractive; they look a bit like a variety of hibiscus which has pale yellow flowers with a red spot in the center. Alas, in the eyes of non-gardeners and farmers, the leaves of okra bear an unfortunate resemblance to marijuana plants, and while I would like to hope that the average neighborhood SAPD officer has enough savvy to tell the difference at a glance … I don’t want to borrow trouble.

So – okra in quantity; what to do with it? Aside from pickles, and breading and deep-frying it, my usual method for okra is to slice up the pods as I harvest them, and put them in a plastic bag in the freezer until I have enough to make a good batch of gumbo out of it. Gumbo is one of those all-purpose dishes like meatloaf or macaroni and cheese; infinite number of recipes in infinite variations, depending on what you have on hand. It all begins with a roux, of course – oil and flour stirred together, until the flour darkens to the color of a tarnished copper coin. This is what gives the gumbo broth it’s thickening substance.

This is a recipe that I like to use, raided from the internet, but with additions from one of my Cajun cookbooks and adjusted to incorporate the accumulated okra harvest.
Combine together ½ cup peanut oil and the same of flour, and simmer until darkened – but not burnt! Add in 1 chopped onion, 1 chopped green or red pepper, and 3 stalks of celery – all very finely chopped, and stir together with the roux until the vegetables are limp. Add in 3-4 minced cloves of garlic, and 1 Tbsp of Creole seasoning, like Tony Chachere’s. In another pot, heat almost to boiling, 5 cups of fish, chicken, or vegetable stock, and blend it gently into the roux-vegetable mixture, stirring constantly. Add 2 teaspoons of Worcestershire sauce and 1 to 1 ½ cups fresh or frozen okra, sliced into rounds. Cover and simmer for half an hour, and add half to 3/4ths of a pound smoked Andouille sausage, sliced into ¼ inch rounds and 1-2 lbs fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined. If the shrimp is already cooked, then just simmer the gumbo long enough to warm the sausage and shrimp through. Serve with a scoop of hot rice in the middle, and a sprinkling of sliced green onion.

2014 Garden Update

Maytime Revels in the Garden

by Celia Hayes

Having been pretty serious about watering the garden every day – and that it rained buckets for a couple of days – the back yard veggie garden is looking pretty darned good this week. The beans have pretty well covered the tipi of poles arranged for their climbing convenience, and the bush beans have so far been somewhat productive. I have several batches of them going, having started them at different times since March 1. The tomatoes go up – or hang down in fairly impenetrable thickets, and we have this very week harvested the first couple of handfuls of cherry and tiny yellow pear tomatoes. The resident rat has nibbled at one or two … but I think that putting out the trap for him will put and end to that nonsense within a couple of days … before the seriously large heirlooms ripen.

Even so, the tomatoes in the larger hanging planters are covered with grape-sized green fruit, and the tomato plants in the raised beds of hardware cloth or chicken wire are doubled that, so the rat will have to be the size of a cocker spaniel in order to make much of a dent in them … but it’s still the principle of the thing. I didn’t spend more than $50 at Rainbow Gardens and about the same at Lowe’s for a nasty furry rodent freeloader to come along and help himself. He’s already helping himself to some of the pepper plant and eggplant leaves, too – biting them clean through the stems – and last week the most nearly ripe yellow banana pepper was eaten, every scrap but the stem. I had plans for that banana pepper, too. Think of the rat as a walking dead rat.

This year I took a chance on a couple of tomatillo plants – which have grown to near-shrub size, and adorned with little green balloon-like tomatillo husks … but as of yet, no evidence of tomatillos. Likewise with the bed of squash; two sorts, the round green patty-pan sort, and some kind of Lebanese zucchini variant. The plants are huge and sprawling, with some flower buds on them, under the leaves. I did send away from some specialty seeds for French gherkins, so that I can make proper cornichon pickles. It worked out to about .17 cents per seed, for a teeny packet of about twenty seeds – but they have also burgeoned to the point of climbing energetically their own tipi-arrangement. Note to self – save one of the resulting gherkins and allow to go to seed … for next year, of course.

The frost-killed shrubs that were planted originally to attract humming-birds have come roaring back as well. The back garden looks so very pleasant now – after the barren wasteland that it was in January and February – that I was moved to bring home some cans of pastel spray paint and re-do the café table and chairs in colors that matched the house, or trim and some of the pavers. The café set was a bargain from Big Lots, bought these many moons ago because they were attractive, sturdy and relatively cheap, but the colonial red I had painted them then had gotten faded and began to chip. Really, I think my next project will be to reclaim the back porch as a pleasant place to sit and view my garden bounty.

And did I mention the apple tree? Yes, I found an apple tree – but now I have to plant another one, so they can pollinate each other.

Gotta Have Heart

You Gotta Have Heart!

Ah, yes – Fiesta Time is here once again; San Antonio’s very own Mardi Gras but with more couth. Or at least we like to think so. Around here, when the floats with the Fiesta female nobility pass, the crowd shouts, “Show us your shoes!” and not anything more revealing than that. Of all the scheduled events during a nearly-two-week-long city-wide block party, one of the most well-attended (to judge by the crowds every evening) is NIOSA, or Night In Old San Antonio, which features every kind of food booth imaginable in the little squares and streets of La Villita. One of the long-time favorites of NIOSA is a South American version of meat-onna-stick called ‘antichucios’, which a long-ago volunteer discovered while on an assignment in South America.

The recipe that I found calls for a marinade made by whirling 4 chopped jalapeno peppers in a blender with a little water and adding the resulting pepper slurry to 1 ½ cups red wine vinegar, 1 cup water, 1 tsp each cumin, paprika, and oregano with 2 tsp salt, ½ tsp black pepper, and a couple of crushed garlic cloves. Cut one large beef tenderloin or sirloin or top round into 1-inch cubes and marinate in the pepper/vinegar spice concoction overnight. Thread onto skewers and roast over hot coals, basting with marinade. The original version called for beef hearts – which since they are a muscle – are rather tough and need a powerful marinade. Otherwise – it’s like chewing steak-flavored rubber bands.

And I know this because – back in the day, when my parents were raising four children on a single salary, my mother joined a food co-op which offered serious bang for the food dollar. One of those bargains was beef hearts. Mom would bake it, thinly slivered in a casserole with rice, and my father would inevitably break out in song – from the musical Damn Yankees:

Damn Yankees

“You’ve gotta have heart
Miles ‘n miles n’ miles of heart
Oh, it’s fine to be a genius of course
But keep that old horse
Before the cart First you’ve gotta have heart!”

The casserole was an oblong enameled cast-iron number and very heavy; they loved each other very much, since Mom never hauled off and brained Dad with it.

Speaking of food, and saving money on it and all – the last couple of weeks of mild weather have done wonderfully for my little patch of back yard paradise. The first embryo tomatoes were spotted this morning, and the plants are simply covered in blossoms. This might be the year that I actually have enough tomatoes to think about canning and preserving them. I followed a suggestion on another blog for making raised beds – a circular construction of chicken wire, lined with weed barrier, and filled to within ten inches of the top with leaves, which gently compost as you grow stuff in the top ten inches or so of soil. It’s working pretty well so far – even better than topsy-turvey hanging planters. The raised bed full of potatoes is also thriving, and the pole beans are launching themselves up the poles with energy and enthusiasm. What a difference just over two weeks!

Oh – and if the thought of downtown Fiesta traffic gives you the willies – check out the Running of the Wiener-Dogs in Buda. This year’s poster is a wee bit of a change from the usual movie-theme. This year it’s a TV show: Yes, it’s Dog Dynasty…

Hanging Gardens of Spring Creek Forest

The Splendid Hanging Gardens of Spring Creek Forest – Spring 2014

by Celia Hayes

All right then – I confess that after last year’s disastrous tomato adventure – in which that which wasn’t killed by the heat was demolished by invading rats – I could be forgiven for giving up entirely. But darn it, the year before was so bountiful … well, not really all that bountiful, but a good many dinners enlivened with fresh sliced tomatoes on the salad. I hunger for fresh garden tomatoes, and it’s too darned far to drive down to Trader Joe’s for a box of their assorted baby heirloom tomatoes every day or so, with gas over $3.00 a gallon. I stocked up at Rainbow Gardens on a wide assortment of heirloom tomato starts, after the unseasonable hard freeze at the end of February, and embarked again on the adventure of a thriving backyard garden.

Some of the tomatoes are growing in the hanging containers, or in single surviving Topsy-Turvy, but most are in large pots, or in a pair of round raised beds – the suggestion of a commenter on a gardening discussion forum. It seems that you can take a length of hardware cloth or other wire mesh, or even chicken wire, make a circular form about the size of an oil drum with it, line with landscape fabric or weed barrier, dump leaves, grass, twigs, etc to fill it up to within ten inches of the top, then fill the rest with garden soil or potting mix. The stuff underneath composts merrily away, even as the vegetables grow … and in colder climates, the rotting compost even keeps the tomatoes going well into late fall. Lord knows, I have a sufficiency of leaves, what with the Arizona trashtree, and my next door neighbors’ oak molting frequently and generously, and little space to compost them. May as well put them to use as a basis for raised beds

The good garden news this week is that the two sapling fruit trees I bought at Sam’s Club for a pittance sometime in January have both begun to put out tiny green leaves. I thought the peach tree would be OK, as it had noticeable buds swelling the ends of the branches, and when I cautiously pruned an end of the branch, it was supple and green underneath, but the plum was more of an enduring question. It just sat there, sullenly, week after week, all bare twiggy limbs long after the peach began putting forth tiny green leaves. This week, the plum began bringing forth leaves of its own, and I was relieved. Naturally, it will be years before we have any fruit from them, but the speed at which the two crepe myrtle trees and the fig tree grew encourages me no end.

The new flowerbed by the front door – that one which my daughter and I built up when we re-did the brick step – is also doing very, very well. All of the bulbs have come up, the rose bush is thriving mightily, some of the scattered seeds have produced … well, something, and the four narrow planters where I planted mesclun salad greens have done well enough to have been harvested for salads several times already. I planted another round of mesclun greens in back, in two lengths of guttering nailed to the fence – another suggestion from an on-line garden discussion. Cap off the ends of a length of gutter, fill with garden soil, and there you have – a vertical garden. I’d really like to have this be the year that I hardly have to purchase any produce at all.

A Vegetable Medley

Vegetariana

 

by Celia Hayes

Alack and alas, the squashes which I planted in the spring, which came up, leafed out and flowered bountifully never actually produced any squash plants before they gracefully sank to the ground, withered and gave up the ghost. This has been to my complete mystification – they were provided plenty of sun, water and fertilizer, and I did not see that any of the plants were afflicted with vine borers. Well, next spring is another chance for a San Antonio home backyard garden; meanwhile I have pulled up the dead plants and harvested the small crop of red potatoes … which did thrive, although most of the resulting potatoes were the size of marbles and radishes. We have already eaten the largest of them – and tasty indeed they were, although I mourn they are not zucchini and patty-pan squash … I would have made ratatouille from the zucchini, the eggplant and the garden tomatoes. And no – ratatouille does not normally involve rats. This is a recipe that my mother loved, from Sunset’s French Cookbook 1976 edition. Just think of it as a vegetable medley – sometimes I have made it with fresh tomatoes, too.

Combine in an 3-quart ovenproof casserole:

3 TBsp olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove minced garlic
1 1-lb eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 medium zucchini, cut in 1-inch slices
1 1-lb can whole tomatoes and their juice, chopping tomatoes roughly with a spoon
1 tsp basil leaves
1/2 tsp salt

Cover and bake in a 400 deg. oven for about two hours, or cover and simmer gently on the stove-top, until vegetables are very soft, uncovering and stirring once or twice. Garnish with parsley and serve.

The tomatoes didn’t do well this year, either. Again, I am not certain why – except that perhaps my personal tomato curse has returned, or that it was, like previous years, just too darned hot for them by mid-spring.

However, and on the bright side – we had beans, lots of lovely green beans, and now that the first planting has given up the ghost, I have planted another round. Eggplants we have – not very many, but it’s not one of my absolute faves as a vegetable, either. But as for peppers … cayenne and bell peppers and jalapenos – all of those plants are thriving, many of them on their second or third year. Very likely I can grind up my own chili powder or cayenne pepper from that I have.

Another vegetable delight that I hope someday to make from home-grown vegetables is vegetable chili – this from Nava Atlas’s Vegeteriana

Sautee in 2 Tbsp olive oil: 1 chopped onion, 1 chopped bell pepper until the onion is limp. Then add 1 zucchini, sliced, 1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels, 1 14-oz can whole tomatoes with their liquid, 1 6-oz tomato paste, 3 Tbsp soy sauce, 2 tsp chili powder (more or less to taste), 1 teasp ground cumin, ½ teasp each ground coriander and oregano, ¼ teasp dried thyme, dash cayenne pepper, and 2 ½ cups cooked or canned kidney beans. Simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are done, about fifteen to twenty minutes. Serve garnished with grated cheddar cheese, sour cream, pickled green chilis and warm tortillas on the side; food of the gods, vegetarian division.

 

Beanz-Garden Update

Beanz! A Garden Update

for all your San Antonio Home Buying needs!

by Celia Hayes

I have to say that the occasional rain shower over the last week or so has been very, very, very welcome, and so have the cool fronts. Anything which delays the full frontal blast of wicked summer heat by a week or so is a good thing in my book. But it has been a good month in the garden; what a difference a mere four or five weeks have made.

This year, I bit the bullet – the only plant starts that I bought were tomatoes. They went into a pair of Earth Boxes, and six home-made hanging planters. So far, lots of big green tomatoes, but nothing edible yet. For just about all the other plants this year, I began with packets of seeds from Lowe’s; three or four kinds of beans, sugar peas, three kinds of squash, and five seed potatoes from Rainbow Gardens. The bell, jalapeno and cayenne pepper plants are left over from previous years, as are the eggplants. I had never really thought of them all as perennials, but they all came back very nicely from winter.

The pepper plants are thriving, and the eggplants all have fresh new foliage and are hung with star-shaped purple blossoms which herald fat little eggplants, or so I hope. The okra plants began from seeds from last years’ okra plants. I didn’t know that you have to pick the okra pods as soon as they are about four or five inches long; any bigger than that, and they are totally inedible. So, I had a boat-load of okra seeds. Until now I had never had much luck growing vegetables from seeds. Very likely, I was doing it all wrong in trying to cultivate the terrible, horrible, awful clay soil that my yard is made of. Even digging in sand and compost didn’t help much. Last year we used Scott’s Moisture Control Potting mix in the pots and Earth Boxes, and things generally did very well. This year we filled the two raised beds with it, planted squash and potatoes in one, and beans in the other, crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.

The squash have begun putting out blossoms; it looks like the little green patty-pan squash are going first, with the yellow squash and the zucchini lagging slightly behind. The beans – the Kentucky Wonder variety began going up the string net which I had run from the edge of the raised bed to the top of the fence as if there had been some green bean drill instructor screaming at them to climb. As of this week they are covered in little white and purple flowers. These things are supposed to bear copious quantities of beans – and harvesting them regularly encourages even more. I still have packets of other varieties of beans, and hope to start another couple of small raised beds. It seems that I have inadvertently hit on the right place in my garden to grow pole beans; partly shaded for much of the day, but growing up against a south-facing fence.

I also had a packet of lettuce seeds, and another of mixed salad greens, which just this week had enough leaves to harvest and use in salads. Oh, the taste of fresh greens is indescribably good. When the squash plants are exhausted, and I dig up the potatoes in the fall, I am planning to put up a plastic tent over the large raised bed and sow more salad greens and lettuce inside. I’d like to be able to eat out of my own garden for the rest of this year, and even have enough excess to freeze.

And that’s my week in the garden – what about yours?

Making Homemade Broth

Lentil and Brown Rice Compost Broth

This was one of these things that I read so long ago that I don’t remember when, or who, save that it was an interview with a rather clever and creative chef being interviewed, and just about that time I had despaired of finding any broth – canned or as a bouillon cube – at the commissary or local supermarket which wasn’t expensive, unbearably salty, or both. Now HEB, Sprouts, and Trader Joe’s all offer a nice variety of flavored and low sodium broths and I have used them for some splendid soups, especially when nothing sits very well on on a fractious stomach except chicken broth with a smidgeon of rice or fideos in it … but nothing beats home-made broth made the way that I did, following the advice of the very clever and penny-pinching chef.

What he advised was to keep a special container in the freezer, and whenever you had vegetable scraps, cut ends or clean peelings, or even whole veggies past their best-by date, to throw them into the container. Onion ends, mushroom stems, ends of celery – in fact, everything but broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower scraps could be used. Omit anything spoiled, rotten or moldy, of course. If you are not a vegan, then bones and trimmings from various meats – chicken necks and ham-bones and the like – can be added as well. When the container is completely full, empty the frozen scraps into a large stockpot, and add a handful of fresh parsley (or any other fresh herbs you have available – thyme would be fantastic), and some whole peppercorns, and fill with bottled or tap-water up almost to the top of the pot. Cover the stockpot, set it on the stove over low heat, and just let it simmer for a good few days, until all the vegetables are cooked to softness and the broth itself is a rich deep brown.

And that’s it: after a couple of days, take it off the heat, let cool, and pour the broth off. I like to run it through a fine mesh strainer, and package it in 2-cup to quart quantities for the freezer out in the garage. Nothing makes a better base for soup – and one of my very favorites to use broth for is a lentil and brown rice soup, from Nava Atlas’s Vegetariana.

Combine in a large pot:
1/2 Cup dried lentils, washed and picked over
1/3-1/2 Cup brown rice
2 TBSp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 TBSp soy sauce
2 Bay leaves
3 Cups water or vegetable broth
Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer over low heat for 7 to 10 minutes. Then add:
2 additional cups water or broth
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 medium carrots, thinly sliced
1 large celery stalk, finely chopped
Handful of finely chopped celery leaves
1 14-oz can chopped tomatoes with liquid, or Ro-Tel tomatoes with chili peppers.1/2 Cup tomato sauce or tomato juice
1/4 cup dry red wine or sherry
1 Teasp dried basil
1 Teasp paprika
1/2 Teasp dried marjoram
1/2 Teasp dried thyme
Salt and pepper to taste.

Cover and simmer for half an hour or so, until lentils and rice are done. You can take the onus of being vegetarian off it by adding about half a pound of kielbasa or other smoked sausage sliced into rounds, towards the end of the cooking time, and serving it with a little grated cheddar cheese on top. I made it once with imported green lentils from France, and people almost swooned.

South Texas Garden Plans

Plans for the Garden – Spring 2013

by Celia Hayes

When just about everything in the garden was done producing for the year and the weather began to cool off, my daughter and I put up the folding gazebo-greenhouse which one of our San Antonio neighbors decided was surplus to needs. Into it went all the surviving plants, and the delicate things, like the patchouli plant, the pepper vine, an earth-box full of salad greens and lettuce, and another with three tomato plants which had self-seeded from last year’s crop. In advance of the first cold snap, we zipped up the window openings and doorway, and aside from unzipping the door long enough to water everything once a week, we pretty much ignored it. All the plants inside thrived on this regimen, and one of the tomato plants has already put forth baby green tomatoes the size of grapes … in late January. We do not know, of course, what kind of tomatoes they are – could be the black cherry sort, the yellow pear-shaped sort, the heirloom beefsteak variety or even the egg-shaped roma tomatoes … all of which we had in the hanging planters last year, or in one of the earth boxes. Any of them could have self-seeded – and the resulting plants are thriving. So – yes, we will keep the gazebo-greenhouse up. As a matter of fact, it was such a pain to assemble that we are extremely reluctant to take it down.

As it turned out for us last year, although the hanging turvy planters, the earth boxes and the pots of various sizes produced a splendid-looking assortment of vegetables, and the garden looked nearly the best that it ever has been, the actual crop wasn’t that impressive. It wasn’t enough to entirely supply our salad green and vegetable needs throughout the summer and fall, and certainly not enough that we were going around to the neighbors leaving sacks of zucchini and peppers on the doorstep, ringing the doorbell and running away.

So, this year, we’re moving on to Plan …well, by this time it is Plan C. Plan A, back in the beginning was in just digging in lots of sand compost to what is essentially hard clay – which worked for some things, but but vegetables. Plan B, which was to plant the vegetables in containers, was what we did last year – and there just isn’t enough container space. Plan C is – a series of raised beds, made from wide pine planks, and filled with compost and good potting soil. This is what we have started; last weekend I built the largest one, from a pair of 12-foot planks, which the nice people at Lowe’s were kind enough to saw into 4 and 8 foot lengths. Four pairs of corner joist fasteners and a handful of wood screws – and there we go. Fill with soil, and put square concrete pavers around the edge so that we’re not waiting through the mud every time we water … and there’s the first raised bed. We should be able to build and fill two or three more, and fit into various unused spaces in the back yard, which will offer lots more space for vegetable-growing.

We’ve carried over enough cayenne, jalapeno and bell pepper plants from last year that we need not buy any more for this year. Alas, one of the tomato turvys has split and disintegrated under the stress of two years hard use, and I suspect the remaining two are very close to following suit – so, here we go, looking for more. With the greater space available in the raised beds, we might better be able to grow more squash, zucchini and bush beans – and just today when we were at Lowe’s for some shelf brackets, I noticed that they had bags of onion starts and seed potatoes … and those are definitely things that I’d like to have. And that’s the plan for my garden this year – what’s yours?

Okra

The Way of the Okra

Although I have only one huge okra plant, and a couple of others which have produced intermittently and spasmodically, individual okes (is that the singular of okra, like meese should be the singular of moose?) my garden just doesn’t seem to produced sufficient of them in a short period of time to make a decent batch of okra pickles on any given day. At least, not enough to be worth firing up the canning kettle. It’s really not worth heating up the kitchen in my San Antonio home unless there are at least three quarts or six pints in contention … and my okra plants just aren’t that prolific. So I cheated – I went and bought two pounds of okra at the Indian market (cunningly disguised as a gas station on the corner of 410 and Starcrest) and added into it the gleanings of the last week or so and made a batch of spicy okra pickles from a recipe that I found on the interned and amended. Oddly enough, we like okra as pickles, in gumbo and even breaded and deep-fried, in which format it is as addictive as popcorn although somewhat more fattening … but okra on it’s own … that is a vegetable that needs work.

Basically, make a pickling brine from 2 ⅔ cup cider vinegar and 1 ½ cup water, and 1 ½ teaspoons salt, and when it comes to a simmer, either add to it, or steep in a tea-ball, 2 Tbsp. pickling spices.

I used another net-recipe for pickling spice, which called for 2 Tbsp. mustard seeds, 2 Tbsp. whole allspice, 2 teasp coriander seeds, the same of cloves, 1 teaspoon of ground ginger and the same of dried red pepper flakes, a crumbled bay leaf and a two-inch length of cinnamon stick. This makes more than needed for a single batch, so save the remainder for the next batch.

Meanwhile, pack the raw okra into 2 hot and sterilized 1-quart jars, and tuck in among the packed oke pods in each jar, 2-3 peeled and lightly crushed garlic cloves, 2-3 dried chili pods (I used ripe red jalapeno and paprika pods from my garden) and two or three small bay leaves … I have a small bay tree in the garden, so again … from my garden. It helps to pack the first layer of okra in the jar with the wide end down, and then wedge the next layer into it pointy end down, and distribute the garlic cloves, the pepper pods and the bay leaves as they fit. Fill the jars with okra and all until just below the point on the jar where the threaded rim begins, then pour in the hot brine and process at least 20 minutes in boiling water, as per the usual canning instructions.

This week, one of our dinners included a salad – of halved fresh garden tomatoes and sliced segments of home-pickled okra, adorned with crumbles of feta cheese and fresh parsley – again from the garden – and splashed with some olive oil. Alas, the olive is not home-grown from my own tree. That will take … a good few more decades.

Time in our San Antonio Vegetable Garden

Time in the Vegetable Garden

by Celia Hayes

I look at the pictures that I took in the early spring, and I can hardly recognize my yard. A bitter winter freeze and various large and small animal depredations had pretty much laid waste to it for the last year or so … but what a difference five months have made! And a half-truckload of free mulch. And $65 dollars worth of timber and hardware from Lowe’s, and approximately $200 spent here and there, at the Antique Rose Emporium, HEB, and Sam’s Club for vegetable starts and premium potting soil and one or two other essential items. Considering that these expenses were spread over four months and between two of us, it’s not very much at all. The back yard garden looks good enough that I can invite people to see it, without suffering acute embarrassment.

The squash plants are spreading near and far, blooming luxuriantly – but so far, only a handful of tiny, inch-long squash. Note to self: Self, plant the squashes against the fence and give them plenty of space, as they seem to want to sprawl all over. The eggplants have fat purple and white blooms on them, but as yet, no embryonic eggplants, but the okra … a couple of incipient okras. Or is the singular of okra ‘oke’? Curiously, the pepper plants from last year are doing rather well, especially the one jalapeno planted in a separate pot

The most important item is – the tomatoes. We have three topsy-turvy planters, each with two plants in them, hanging from the top tier of a home-designed and built frame, suspended from two branches of the mulberry tree in the back yard. The plants have grown down, and the eight tomato plants in earth-boxes and self-watering pots below have grown up, supported on tomato cages … into one productive tangle. There are clusters of jade-green tomatoes everywhere, but it turned out that the tomatoes were irresistible to something with sharp and indiscriminant teeth. I suspected that the same critters were the same who raided throughout last year. They nibbled half of my hanging airplane/spider plants to death, digging up and digging up and eating the lush, juicy tubers that made the root network of the plants. The same hungry critters also ravaged the hanging turvey-planter full of peppers. We finally had to hang the pepper turvey from a hook in the center of the back porch roof, where the rats would have needed rappelling ropes and one of those hook-shooting thingys beloved of espionage thrillers to climb vertically from the edge of the roof to the pepper-plants.

And they did it in the last week or so, but this year we were out of patience with seeing our potential crop from this garden reduced by freeloading anything … birds, caterpillars, rodents, freeloaders of any phyla. We hates them, so we do my precious, we hates them! This year we set out baited rat-traps, and the first couple of rats caught in them were so big that they were … just maimed, which we did feel a little guilty about, but not much. The rats caught since then have been increasingly smaller and stone-cold instantly dead … and the tomatoes, peppers and hanging plants have since been unmolested. Still – the traps go out, every evening for another week or so. And that was my week in the garden; what was yours?