Friday, November 24, 2006

African Violets

African Violets grow perfectly for 2 types of people:
1) Residents of Tanzania
2) Indoor Gardeners with a lot of time on their hands

If you don’t fall into those two categories, you’re probably an African Violet serial killer like me... and Sandy... and pretty much everyone else I know. Each year, supermarkets tempt us with these darling little house plants though the average life expectancy in my home is about 6 weeks.

* The quickest way to kill them is by over watering. Water when soil is dry to the touch.

* Another good way to do a bad job is to water them from above. They absolutely hate getting their leaves wet. Set them in a saucer and let the roots soak up the water.

East windows, with morning sunlight and bright light for the rest of the day is ideal. (My M.O. generally involved placing them in a hot, south window where they literally curled up and died.) If leaves start turning brown, the plant is getting too much light.

Spend the extra dollar on African Violet soil. Give them diluted plant food, once a month.

These little flowers grow wild in one small place on the planet, the rainforests of East Africa. Make them feel at home by creating a humid environment.

Put a layer of stones in a deep saucer, fill with water, and place your flower pot on top of it. (Pot should sit above the water level.) The water will slowly evaporate upwards, creating the perfect flowering environment for your African violet. (Which, incidently, is not a violet at all. But, that's a story for another day.)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Chantrelles And Other 'Shrooms

It's that time of year again....

It's that time of year again. No... not Thanksgiving. No.... not time to go broke on holiday gifts. Give up? It's time to renew your subscription to the Mycological Association!

That's Sci-Fi talk for mushroom hunters. Every state in the US has a local organization that scowers for edible mushrooms. You might be surprised to discover that Utah has some of the best edible wild mushroom crops in the world.

Including Chantrelles, a delightful delicacy with the aroma of apricots. They taste more like a flower than a mushroom. They're absolutely delectable!

Even the chefs at Café des Artistes, in Manhattan, rely on crazy mushroom people who forage mixed woods and crawl under conifers and oaks to find this tasty 'shroom. That's because Chantrelles refuse to grow in a commercial environment.

Before you pull on your boots and head to the woods, keep in mind that Chantrelle hunting is not as easy as it sounds. These mushrooms look similar to the Jack O'Lantern (Omphalotus illudens) and the False Chanterelle (Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca,) both of which are poisonous.

Edible mushrooms commonly found in Utah:
  • Chantrelles
  • Black, Yellow, and White Morels
  • Shaggy Mane
  • Meadow Mushroom
  • Wood Ear
  • Puffball
  • King Bolete
And, they're good for you, too. High in potassium, riboflavin, niacin, and selenium. In fact, mushrooms are the best food you can eat to guard against prostate cancer.

* Do not, under circumstances, eat a wild mushroom unless it has been officially identified as an edible species.

** Do not, under any circumstances, believe your significant other when she says she 'knows' these mushrooms are okay. Remember Arsenic and Old Lace?

Surprise, surprise, Black Moon knows his stuff. He wrote in, commenting about the cute little red mushroom in the top photo. The Amanita muscaria, the Fly Agaric has a sordid past, used by the Vikings prior to battle. It's loaded with toxins that can make you crazy and violently ill... But, that's not why I chose it. The Fly Agaric has been associated with Christmas ornaments and other holiday decor since 1652.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Thanksgiving Sweet Potatoes

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. I can over-indulge at someone else's house. I don't have to bring presents. And, I'm generally clever enough to get out of washing the dishes, too!

I'm determined to make this a good one because lately things have gone awry.

Two Thanksgivings ago, I got in a big fight with a Republican. Since then, I've had to be extra nice to her, just to keep the peace, and that pains me beyond words!

Last year, I showed up on my best behavior but I was in charge of desserts. I slaved for hours and hours and hours, but they were horrible and everyone was too nice to say so.

The forecast for this holiday is much brighter. After last year's disaster, I've been assigned the easy task of sweet potatoes.

If you've been losing sleep over the difference between yams and sweet potatoes, fret no more...!

Impress your friends by explaining that yams and sweet potatoes are entirely unrelated, though here in the US, they're essentially the same.

Yup, it's just another marketing ploy. In spite of everything your grocer tells you, you'd be hard-pressed to buy a yam in America. Yams sold in the US are just a different variety of sweet potato.

Garnet Sweet Potatoes (marketed as yams) have deep, red skin and bright orange flesh. Moisture content is much higher, making these a great choice for candied sweet potatoes or my all time favorite, Sweet Potato Cheesecake.

Jersey Sweet Potatoes have tan skin and yellow flesh. They're sweeter than 'yams' and also drier. Great for muffins and breads.

Sweeten up your Garnet Reds with Dark Brown Sugar and Toasted Pecans:

Start with 2 lbss Roasted Garnet (red-skinned) Sweet Potatoes, peeled, mashed and lovingly improved with:
  • 1/4 cup Butter
  • 1/3 cup Dark Brown Sugar
  • 1/2 cup Chopped Pecans, toasted (brings out the flavor)
  • 1/2 tsp. Salt
(Serves 6)

* Yams and sweet potatoes are completely unrelated vegetables, though in both cases you're eating the root of a tropical vine. Sweet potatoes are grown in America, a distant member of the morning glory family. Yams, a staple in Africa, are rarely seen in the U.S.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Christmas Amaryllis

There are two kinds of people in the world and I'm not talking Democrats and Republicans. No, this is about that odd group who are already done with their Christmas shopping.

I don't want to be too critical of them (on the off chance I'm on their gift-giving list!) But, as I trudge up the hill from my mailbox, each day, I can't help but grumble at the weight of my load.

I'm up to my eyeballs in holiday catalogs! Glossy color photos and deferred payments ('til February!) has, in no way, inspired me to start shopping. It's too early. I'll worry about that in December.

What I am worried about is something that probably hasn't occurred to you, or anyone else of sound mind.

It's time to get your Amaryllis growing!

Second only to Poinsettias, these big gorgeous flowers make absolutely breathtaking holiday centerpieces. Popular gifts for flower lovers (like me!)

The only problem is, they're sold in bulb form and most take 4-6 weeks to bloom. So, buy them now. That way, you'll have gorgeous flowers for Christmas, or Kwanzaa, or any other holiday that conveniently lands in December.

  • Plant in a heavy pot so they won't tip over. (Good quality bulbs grow to be huge plants, producing multiple flowers, some 6 inches wide.)
  • Start bulbs in a sunny window.
  • Go light on watering until flower stalk begins to grow.
  • Keep soil moist while plant is growing and blooming.
  • Rotate pot, exposing all sides to the sun. That way the stalk will grow straight vs. leaning toward the window.
Where to Buy:
That depends entirely on how much you like your friends. The best quality bulbs come from Jackson and Perkins. Walmart sells lower quality bulbs for 5 bucks. Jane gave me these beauties last year (photo below). I doubt they were from Wally World. Five weeks of happy blooms!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Allium Species Bulbs

My garden is my gym, my playground and my church. It also serves as a wildlife sanctuary, a bird aviary and a butterfly brothel. But, as of today, it's closed for the season.

Great timing! On the last good gardening day I'll see for six months, my Allium Bulbs arrived! I had just finished planting them when snowflakes began to fly.

Allium 'Hair' (above) is just like it sounds. These odd, hairy flowers are a real attention-grabber in the spring garden. Bloom time is about 3 weeks, 24 inches tall, USDA zones 4-8.

Allium 'Fireworks' (above) stand about 12 inches tall, raining bright purple, yellow and white flowers in late spring. Great for rock gardens.

Give Allium 'Unifolium' (above) room to spread. They naturalize beautifully, creating a pretty drift of star-shaped, pink flowers.

Allium 'Cowanii,' or Allium 'Neapolitanum', (above) has been around since the 18th century. These 16-inch tall, graceful bloomers naturalize quickly. Divide mature clumps in late summer, when they become overcrowded.

Alliums range in height from 6 inches to 4 or 5 feet, depending upon the variety. Rodents can't stand the onion fragrance of these bulbs. And, that's a good thing because this is one bulb that won't double as lunch for the pesky, little critters who patrol my garden.

They're easy to grow and particularly nice for xeric landscapes since they like dry soil, when dormant. Plant Allium 3 times as deep as each bulb is in diameter. Deep planting is important because it keeps the taller plants from drooping under the weight of the flowers.

PS: Ever been stumped on which end is up? Sometimes it's hard to tell top from bottom with strange bulbs. When in doubt, plant bulbs sideways.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Haralson Apples

Pucker up! The Haralsons have arrived.

Crisp, juicy and slightly sour, Haralson Apples are the reason Minneapolis city slickers make a beeline to southern Minnesota for the harvest festivals.

You can take the boy out of Minnesota, but you can't take Minnesota out of our Utah boy. In late Autumn, my buddy Mike gets a care package from Mom. We're particularly nice to Mike, this time of year, because the box is filled with the most scrumptious apples you'll ever find. That is, if you can find them.

I hate to break it to Mike but when it comes to endangered species, Haralson Apples are probably on the list. They are long growing, exceptionally cold hardy apple trees, popular in Minnesota and Wisconsin and that's pretty much it. In fact, even the National Arbor Foundation couldn't tell me where I could buy one of these terrific trees.

Did you know there are over 150 types of apple trees?

Hard to believe when you view the limited variety in most supermarkets. That's because the really tasty ones don't generally hold up to the demands of trucking them all over the US.

Haralsons are disease-resistant, extremely hardy, vigorous and productive. Ideal for hard cider. If you're lucky enough to find these trees, plant 3 for easy pollination.

PS: Beautiful spring flowers, too!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Grape Harvest in Napa Valley

Robert Mondavi started his winery at the ripe old age of 50.
I intend to follow in his footsteps, though.. tick.. tock.. tick.. tock.. I haven’t made much progress, as yet.

High altitudes are great for grape growing. Intense high mountain sunlight means more ultraviolet exposure, an ideal setting for delicious wines. Grapes mature nicely during the warm, sunny days, building sugars naturally. Cool nights improve acidity levels, vital to premium winemaking.

Premium being the key word here because in order to get Kate’s Great Grape Escape Winery and Boutique Hotel off the ground, I’ll need to charge at least $10,000 a bottle. It’s pretty spendy to start a winery!

Rather than waiting for me to announce my first batch of Pinot Noir, head to Napa.Napa, like glaciers and sadly polar bears, too, won’t be around much longer, thanks to strange climactic days messing with grape production.

In the meantime, enjoy delightful Napa Valley reds and whites during harvest time when crowds are smaller and there is still lots to do.

A few fun things I've discovered on my visits to Napa:

Book a cave tour with Del Dotto Vineyards. Grab your glass and wander these haunted caves, sampling delicious reds direct from the barrels. It is, hands down, the most enjoyable wine tasting you'll ever experience. (Nicknamed Del Blotto, for generous pours and chocolate, too!)

Reserve a room at the El Bonita Motel. This 50's style (affordable!) motel is right in the middle of Napa's popular winery road, Highway 29.

Visit Dr. Wilkinson's (affordable!) spa for a relaxing mud or mineral bath.

Have lunch at Augerge Du Soleil (not the least bit affordable!) This incredible restaurant is located high on a hill, in Rutherford, with breathtaking views of Napa Valley.

Pick up everything you need for a gourmet picnic at the historic Oakville Grocery along the winery road, Highway 29, in Oakville. (Ten times more fun than Dean & Deluca.)

Ever wonder why they plant roses at the end of the row of grape vines? For posterity, mostly. Back before growing grapes became a science project, vintners kept a watchful eye on the roses. They'd succumb to disease quicker than grapes, alerting the grower to pests and problems before it hurt the crop.

* The highest vineyard in the world is at 9892 feet in Mendoza, Argentina. Donald Hess's first vintage, Colomé 2002, was released in October, 2006, to rave reviews.

* This darling little frog is the mascot of Schramsberg Sparkling Wine Vineyard. The frog is the only great thing they have going for them. It's a stuffy, over-priced tour, hardly worth the time and effort.