Garden + Vodka = Non-carcinogenic no-calorie sweetener!

I recently learned how to make liquid stevia extract, and I thought I’d post some pictures because it was super easy, and it’s pretty great to have shelf-stable no-calorie sweetener that doesn’t taste like cancer (or cause it).  I don’t have any stevia in the garden this year, but I had a ton of dried leaves from past years. I use the leaves to sweeten iced tea, but sometimes you really need a liquid form.  Enter: vodka.  Liquid stevia can be made in 4 easy steps:

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Add enough vodka to cover the leaves:
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Mix well, cover with tight lid and shake.  Let sit on the counter covered for 24-36 hours (not longer or it will get bitter).2013-06-29 01.27.57

Strain the leaves out of the liquid, using a cheesecloth, coffee filter, or mesh strainer. Funnel into colored glass jar with dropper. 2013-07-01 09.00.56

The stevia will keep on a cupboard shelf for 2-4 years. You only need a drop or two to sweeten a drink, so a little bottle will last quite a while.  And yes, it’s “alcoholic”, but what a great excuse for a drop of vodka in your morning tea. 🙂

Everything is a miracle. It is a miracle that one does not dissolve in one’s bath like a lump of sugar.
~Pablo Picasso


Updates from the concrete jungle

pano from above

Looking down at the parking spot jungle from the deck.

Every Saturday morning in the summer I find myself waking up at something like 6:30am, hopping out of bed, and making a beeline for the garden.  Weekdays I get to spend a bleary half hour in the morning or late evening making sure everything gets watered, but on Saturdays I’m dying to get my hands dirty and see what’s happened over the past week.

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I’ve been negligent on the blogging, so since the last post, the sugar snap peas have grown, been harvested, eaten, and as of this morning, cut down to make room for cucumbers!  I didn’t get a huge yield – 32 pods in total – but they were grown in a tiny tiny container and I only planted a few seeds. Next year I’ll do more – they were delicious!


In the meantime, 2 varieties of cucumbers have started growing out of this slightly less tiny, but still tiny, bucket container.

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2013-06-28 22.26.46So I cut down the dying snap pea vines and will train the cucumber vines up the same space. Since (breaking news) the garden and I will be moving *again* in a month, I stuck a portable trellis in the container instead of using the string trellis tied to the deck.  One of the vines must have grown 6 feet in the past week – it already reaches to the top of the trellis!

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Baby cucumber

In front of the cucumber plants are some Gazania flowers. I’d never seen these before this year, and I’m not sure what I think.  They’re finicky – they don’t like being planted with other plants, and the flowers won’t open unless there is really bright sun. When they do open it’s very briefly, and as soon as a cloud covers the sun they shut right back up again.  I think they are the indifferent, haughty, housecats of the plant world.  That said, when they do open up, they’re really pretty.

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The broccoli has also come and gone.  I got to eat some of it, but was too slow for a couple of heads and instead created giant broccoli flowers which were very interesting, but not overly edible. I also got a few tiny side shoots on those plants that I harvested the main shoots from, so I picked the last of those today and cut down all the plants.

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I also harvested the last of the spinach, which was a bit ragged, but when you blend it in a smoothie you can’t tell at all. 🙂

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The herbs are still doing well, and I’ve been harvesting enough basil this summer that the plants have become very strong and full.  They were starting to develop flowers, so this morning I cut the tops off them all, and I’ll have to do another good harvest later this weekend.  I also gave the chives a haircut, since they were getting pretty unruly (though honestly, unruly is kind of appealing, especially when it comes to hair.)

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The zucchini plants all appear to be doing well, although it seems to me they are somewhat behind last year’s development.  But it looks like at least some of the flowers are getting pollinated, and small zucchinis are starting to appear.

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The cheater purple peppers are also doing well – that biggest one hasn’t been getting any bigger, so I might harvest it soon.  Whenever I’ve grown peppers in the past I always find the flesh is very thin compared to those you buy at the grocery store.  I’m curious to see how these supposedly magical peppers compare.




And last but not least, the many, many tomatoes. 🙂  All of the plants have fruited now, some quite heavily. They seem to be very happy in their little parking lot garden, despite that they don’t get as much direct sun as they should.  Most of them are taller than me, and some of them I can’t even reach the tops!  Moving them to the new apartment a few blocks away is going to be a very interesting challenge…

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Sungold cherries starting to ripen

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Purple Russian Plums

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Jaune Flamée

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Yellow Brandywine

Of course it wouldn’t be tomato season without the return of my second-favorite nemeses, the aphids. I’ve been keeping an eye on them, and so far it looks like they’re not getting too out of control, though I haven’t seen any ladybugs (aka aphid killers) yet, so I’m considering going and buying some.2013-06-20 20.21.05

It’s amazing how fast the garden has grown – 3 weeks ago it looked like this: 2013-06-08 10.32.14

And today, I basically need a machete to do the weeding. 2013-06-28 22.30.56

Basically, I believe the world is a jungle, and if it’s not a bit of a jungle in the home, a child cannot possibly be fit to enter the outside world.
~Bette Davis

early greens

I’m so glad I got such an early start on greens! I have mounds of romaine lettuce just in time for my new obsession with raw tacos, which I recently tried at G-Zen, one of the top vegan restaurants in the country.

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The broccoli has been having a growth spurt too, though no heads have formed yet.

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And sowing my spinach directly from seed gave me the chance to learn a new word: cotyledon.  These are the first ’embryonic’ leaves that emerge from a seed, and they don’t resemble the true leaves much at all.  (Phew, my spinach doesn’t have a long-skinny-looks-like-grass disease after all!)

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Sugar snap peas are growing fast, and soon I’ll have to figure out a trellising plan.  And the beet seeds are starting to sprout, though I think maybe they haven’t been getting enough sun, so I moved them out to the deck extension with the spinach.

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The dill and mint are doing really well in their dollar store bowls, although I think I jumped the gun on the basil – I think it froze while I was away in Seattle. I’m curious to see if I can salvage it though, so stay tuned!

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A few strawberries are starting to appear already, and I think it’s possible I may not have killed my favorite red anemone after all!

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How ’bout we start
with a salad, a fresh bed of lettuce with croutons?
Later we can play a game of chess on the futon.

~dead prez, “Mind Sex”

return of the nemesis

I used to think squirrels were cute.

But last year we had a ridiculous number of run-ins with wildlife on the deck, most notably squirrels and raccoons.  The raccoons were scary, but the squirrels were the real menace. Our first squirrel ate a football-sized hole in the screen door and chewed the fabric off several of our chairs.  A family with at least three babies moved in under our deck boards, and later into the chimney, and began to eat all of our minuscule crop of tomatoes.  Trying to fight back in our feeble human way, we called animal control and were told that we should trap and relocate them to a park 6 miles away and across a body of water.  After much trial and error, we became reasonably adept at said trapping, and relocated about 5 or 6 squirrels over time.

Early this spring we had another family of squirrels living somewhere in the vicinity.  Three acrobatic baby squirrels grew up on our slippery railing, and watching them falling off every other minute could really make it difficult to get any work done.  But happily, just around the time that we were ready to set the plants out, all the squirrels disappeared, and we hadn’t seen another one since.  We were a bit confused about how we got so lucky, but we decided not to look a gift squirrel in the mouth.

Sadly, our luck has run out.  A new squirrel has arrived, and he’s a Wily one.  He appears to be responsible for the tomato bite, and has since eaten all 3 heirloom tomatoes before they were even close to being ripe.  This is really sad, since the tomato plants haven’t fared very well, and I’m not sure if I’ll get another one.  There is one little guy still surviving – think he has a chance of making it?

The squirrel has also eaten at least 2 or 3 cucumbers, and there are only a couple left on the vine.  I’m optimistically hoping I’ll get to them first – it’s so aggravating to feel so outgamed by a little rodent!  Perhaps his superpowers come from his extremely healthy diet.  He also ate some of the last green zucchini, and another giant hole in the screen, which seems to be purely vindictive, since he has never come inside (that we know of!).

We set the trap again, but he seems wise to our ways.  Either that or he prefers vegetables to the peanut butter on a cracker that we’ve been using as bait.

We did, however, manage to catch a purely innocent bystander.

He seemed fine though, and flew away happily when I opened the door.

Elsewhere, things are starting to die back in the heat, but I picked one more crop of zucchini, mainly yellow ones now:

My brilliant and thoughtful sister just gave me a well-timed present of The Classic Zucchini Cookbook, which will come in extremely handy since after the last batch of zucchini bread, chocolate chip pecan zucchini bread, lemon-zucchini muffins, and oatmeal-zucchini brownies, I was running out of ideas!

Although the zucchini plants are really struggling now, it seems like I may still get one last harvest – I was amazed to see this little bunch growing amidst all the dead leaves.

The eggplants are looking fat and shiny, and a bunch of better bush tomatoes are still green enough to have escaped squirrelly attention.

And of course, the requisite watermelon update: 

And since I was feeling sad about the summer winding down, here’s a hardy hibiscus that followed me home from the nursery.  It’s called pinot noir, and its blooms are about 8″ across!

Gardening is civil and social, but it wants the vigor and freedom of the forest and the outlaw.  
~Henry David Thoreau

ode to zucchini

We’re starting to drown in zucchini.  Every day I go out to the deck and it seems like 5 more have become giant beasts overnight. But of course, this is the eternal comedy of vegetable gardening – no matter how many times this happens you just keep doing it to yourself again because you just can’t believe that those teeny little plants in may will actually produce more than one zucchini each.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time lately googling various things that relate to zucchini, and in my travels I came across this gem, which was too awesome not to share.  It’s made all the sweeter by being unmistakably presented on a Commodore 64.

My go-to zucchini eating plan is just to cut it up and throw it on the bbq with lots of salt, pepper, and herbs (this one used some dill from the garden), and then bathe it in lime juice and more salt when it’s done.  I’m sure I’ll end up eating quite a few zucchinis this way over the next few weeks. But I‘ve been trying to come up with some more creative uses for zucchini. I’ve already taken care of the old standby zucchini bread – I made one vegan loaf (below center) which was definitely the most successful vegan dish I’ve ever made, and 2 loaves of chocolate-chocolate chip zucchini bread which is a classic way to take something wholesome and good for you and turn it into something over-the-top decadent.

Best idea so far is zucchini mini pizzas – a great way to use up those giant suckers I waited a day or two too long to pick. Just slice ’em into circles, add pizza sauce, cheese and whatever else you want, and grill.

Anyone have any other favorite zucchini recipes to share?

Vegetables are a must on a diet. I suggest carrot cake, zucchini bread, and pumpkin pie.
~Jim Davis (Garfield)