John McDonald

Blogging about politics, life, and the web

Red cayenne peppers

October 20th, 2010

The red cayenne peppers are ripe – the green ones still need a little bit more time.

This picture was taken about a month ago.  By now, all of the peppers that are going to mature have been picked.  A few weren’t quite up for eating so I might save the seeds for next year just to see what happens.

These are really easy to grow, at least if you’ve got lots of sunlight and lots of rain.  This one sat in a little pot that I moved every week or two to maximize sun, and each plant in a five gallon bucket yielded about twenty spicy peppers.

And don’t be fooled – that small red cayenne does pack quite a hot punch.  I made the mistake once of cooking a sauce without removing all of the seeds, and I don’t know if my girlfriend will ever let me forget it.  From now on, I make sure that the seeds are long gone unless I’m planning to cook for one.

Since these peppers did end up coming in all at once near the end of fall, you might need a little plan about saving them.  I just bagged ’em up and threw ’em in the freezer, but you can also try drying them out for a pepper grinder; blending them in to a red pepper paste; or even blending with a bunch of vinegar to make your own home made hot sauce.  Dried ones should last a season, ones in the fridge are good for a month or two, and anything frozen will probably last you until long after the next crop has come in.

Basil in a concrete block

September 17th, 2010

So we decided to build our raised garden bed out of the cheapest stuff we could find:  concrete cinder blocks.  The bed soil didn’t end up being much higher than the rest of the yard, but having a little barrier did help a bit when it came to retaining moisture and keeping the weeds out.

What I was really interested in trying though, was actually planting something in the spaces of the little holes on the concrete block.  Would they act like little pots?  Would the space be too small?  How would the water drain or collect in it? I started filling them in with sand on the bottom and a mix of sand and top soil at the surface – this lets most of the excess water drain down but right after a heavy rain it is still a bit soggier than the rest of the garden.

I tried a few combinations.  Oregano in rich soil did two things:  first it started drowning, and then it burned out when the sun got too hot.  On looking back, it seems I should have given the oregano the driest and shadiest place I could find.  Oops.

Chives didn’t do too well either.  Concrete does have a bad habit of amplifying heat around it, so they also dried and shriveled up when the sun got too bright.

At least one herb did enjoy the location, though:

A basil plant rooted in the space of a cinder block

And here it is from a few steps back, so you can see how tall it actually got:

A tall basil plant in a concrete block

Now I’m not exactly used to cooking with basil, so I don’t really know what to use it for!  I did manage to make a nice blackberry vinaigrette dressing, but otherwise I’m stumped as this is only one of about 6 basil plants that got this size.  It would have been nice if some of the other herbs would grow, but I’ll consider this a good start and some experimental proof that it is possible to grow herbs in the spaces of a concrete cinder block.  There is actually also a garlic plant that got to a slow start in the cinder block across from it, but it has been a little bit back and forth from sun burn and steady growth.  If it survives and delivers some garlic before the frost, I’ll be sure to share that picture as well!

A banana pepper in the garden

September 14th, 2010

So the new camera is great at taking pictures inside, which is actually kind of rare, but it has a little bit more trouble trying to figure out what I’m trying to focus on when I am outside in the garden.

On my first round of attempts, I only got one really good photo of the garden:

Actually, looking at it again I think that thing is just about ready to be dinner.  When the color shifts just a shade or two closer to yellow, the peppers on these plants have been incredibly sweet and juicy with just a nice little bit of spice.  They’re great for a stir fry or even just eaten on their own.

Got some free food and good exercise this summer

August 31st, 2010

It has been a couple months since I’ve posted much of anything on any of my sites, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a busy, productive, and bountiful summer!

Let’s put the failure up front first: those stubborn tomato vines. After crashing down on themselves and despite several attempts to rig up support structures, there was just nothing we could do for the huge number of tomato vines we’d planted. At 8 or 10 feet in length, some of the more vital ones shot off at an incredible speed that their spindly stems cannot physically support. Further complicating things, the leaves and flowers never did too well because as soon as the sun started moving around through the season they ended up getting a bit too much shade from a nearby magnolia tree. On damp days, the leaves could barely even dry out – and we’ve definitely had our share of storms & humidity. We have plucked one or two ripe fruits from that mess of vines, but the two or three sweet tomatoes hardly seem worth the hours & resources that went in to trying to baby those plants.

Happily though, the successes are much more numerous. First off is the cayenne pepper which seems to absolutely love the contrast of blazing sun and torrential rains. Of four pepper plants seeded in pots, they’ve all flowered and begun to grow rather large cayennes. One plant in particular is an early bloomer and has already delivered a dozen thin red peppers to my spices & sauces.

The other peppers seem to be making some progress as well. Currently, there are both flowers and growing fruits on another four bells and a dozen bannana pepper plants.

In addition to lots of varied peppers, there are some other great spices thriving in the yard. Basil took well to the wetter soils that oregano didn’t seem to like, but now we’ve got quite a few dense specimens of this slightly bitter herb. I don’t know much about cooking with it yet, but when it is crushed up with blackberries & vinegar it makes an incredible salad dressing!

Ginger, garlic, and at least one onion are also getting some momentum finally. These were kind of planted later as an after-thought, but they’ve all shot off to an incredible start and we probably have at least three more months before any serious threat of frost. These three didn’t even come from seeds – they came from grocery cuttings. We’d dumped an onion out by the trash one week and when we went to go take the bins out it had sprouted. After the sprout wilted in the ground I figured it was dead, but a few weeks ago identical green tendrils shot up from what was left of the planted bulb.

Similarly, the garlic and ginger just sprouted on the counter before I ever got a chance to use them. Well, I still used them – I just cut around the parts that were ready to be planted. After leaving them a decent chunk of the starches to get started with, I managed to still cook with most of the clove and ginger root that are now providing me with completely new plants. By the way, despite the intimidating and powerful fragrance of ginger, it is actually quite a sweet and subtle flavor in cooked meals. Teamed up with the cayenne peppers, you’ve got a sweet & spicy sauce that can work with marinades, bbq sauces, soups, and of course – ginger ale.

There’s also been no shortage of long green onions. We picked up a package of scallions after Christmas since the ones we planted last year had fallen to the frost, and when they started to get soft in the fridge we planted the roots of a few we hadn’t used yet on a window side pot. For the rest of the year, we’ve had way more than we could conceivably use.

The watermelons have had it a little tough – I couldn’t quite figure out the issue but then one of them decided to jump the wall of the garden and expand out and down the sunny decline. I was just about ready to give up on them, but the biggest one has now sprouted a whole bunch of flowers that I’m hoping will turn in to a free watermelon or two.

Best of all? I feel great! I don’t remember the last time I’ve been this active since at least some summer break back in high school. These days though, I’m not sick like I was back then so I can actually enjoy it and experience the strength & endurance benefits of exercise – rather than the pain of overexertion. If there’s a downside there, it is that I’m always feeling either warm of hungry.

All in all, the situation around here has been great. It is a little bittersweet though because a lot of people don’t have it so lucky right now. Several close friends & family members have fallen on tough financial times and that is just a small reflection of what is going on in the nation at large. If you hurry, there might just be time to get the next winter crop in the ground before it is too late – and if you spend more time than money like I did, it can be a great way to boost your budget & energy levels to deal with whatever bad news the economy delivers next.

And the (tomato) fix is in!

June 8th, 2010

Yesterday morning, I woke to find the peppers had finally survived two nights in a row without any serious bug attacks, but the best and biggest tomato vines had reached the literal tipping point.

Unfortunately, they don’t grow like this:

tomato diagramIn the real world (and in my backyard), the vines had collapsed in to a big heap of stems trying to crawl up each other in search of more sunlight and more distance from the soggy soil.

Of course, the whole point of this exercise in backyard gardening is to save money on fruits and vegetables, so the last thing I wanted to do was run out to Home Depot to buy expensive trellises or tomato cages.  Heck, those little $3 tomato cages wouldn’t even support half the length of these vines – and I don’t think they’re done growing!

So the trick was to wander around aimlessly in the shed and the storage room until I found something that would do the job without costing any extra money.

And as luck would have it, there was something perfect sitting right there – or I should say six perfect somethings!

dried bamboo is a great poleLuck would have it that a dried out stalk of bamboo makes a perfect, sturdy pole!  I can’t say exactly where the bamboo came from, but that’s probably one of the benefits of having a girlfriend who has some borderline hoarding tendencies.  Not bad enough to get in the way around our relatively small house – but prevalent enough that she manages to collect stuff that will be useful for any kind of art or construction project. If you do know someone who has bamboo growing in their yard, just offer to help them trim it in the summer and I’m sure they’ll let you keep as much as you want.

Anyway, with a little bit of twine, I was able to tie up the vines to a bamboo pole stuck in the dirt.  Since the bamboo grows in segments, there are perfect little notches you can wrap the twine above to get this ridge to get the perfect vertical support without putting too much pressure on the plant.

One more crisis averted!

Total cost:  $0.00

Saved the peppers – just in time for a tomato collapse

June 7th, 2010

Whatever was eating up the cubanelle pepper leaves seems to have been chased off.  There was an empty pot gathering water for the bugs to multiply in, but I flipped that over and brought in a potted lemongrass plant to discourage loitering bugs.  After losing two plants in four nights, it seems to be working just right because the last two nights haven’t brought any extra damage.

Unfortunately, the peppers were saved just in time for all the tomatoes to come crashing down.

Most tomato vines need a little bit of a lift

How they're supposed to stand up

We planted some tomatoes last year and actually got a little bit of fruit off of them, but they were planted pretty late in the season and we figured that as long as they had more time in more direct sun they would even more successful.

There’s just one thing we didn’t really account for – by moving them in to the more direct sunlight, we were taking them away from the deck railing that they’d used to grab on to as they grew taller and taller.   The long side of the rail only faces the sun for a short time each day, so they had grown around the side and tried to squeeze on to the one foot of deck rail that does face south.

Anyway, now they’re in a nice plot that gets lots of sun until 1-2 pm and a little bit more after 4 – but we never got around to putting in any sort of proper support structure.

So if you’re more experienced with tomatoes than I am, you know exactly what happened.  They got too top heavy and they simply can’t stand up straight any longer.  Of course, the white hairs all over the vine can actually root itself in to the soil and deal with crawling all over the ground, but we’re starting to get in to the heavy rainy season and there’s a lot of reason to fear rotting on the leaves and stems.

Now, the whole goal of this gardening project is to get as much food as possible for the least amount of financial investment.  So far, we’ve spent about $50 on some blocks to mark off a garden area and we’ve spent another $20-30 on some soil to build up the nutrients and height of the garden floor.  With another $10 of seeds and $5 worth of plant food, we’ve managed to get about 60 plants started for less than a hundred bucks – and most of those costs won’t repeat next year.

The trick then, is to figure out some kind of cheap way to hold up the tomato vines.  At the moment, they’re lying on some plastic milk crates but we’re looking at possibly setting up a wedge-shaped structure from some bamboo rods we have, and wrapping the thing together in chicken wire. PVC might be a cheap material for framing the wire, but vinyl chloride is bad about leeching toxic compounds in to the air and soil – and possibly right in to the plant itself.  Metal is expensive & wood might rot (and the wood that doesn’t rot is probably just as toxic as the plastics I’m trying to avoid!)  so there are definitely advantages & disadvantages to all the possible solutions here.

I’ll be sure to report back in when the next phase of crisis management is complete – and in the meantime, here’s to hoping that we don’t get too much more rain!

Some bug really likes these cubanelle peppers…

June 4th, 2010

So far, the hot sun and the damp soil has been a great mix for the various peppers planted around the house. The green bell peppers were our first set of seeds this year and they’re absolutely thriving. But I guess at some point we decided that three pepper plants wouldn’t be enough, so I got started on some sweet yellow cubanelles and some red hot cayennes.

Some fresh cubanelle peppers that didn't get eaten by bugs, ready for shipment or sale

What we hope to grow if the bugs don't get to them first...

(btw, I’m still terrible with the camera so I’m getting my cubanelle pictures from Wikipedia)

Now, the bell and cubanelle peppers are located in a pretty close proximity – I’m not too worried about cross-pollination because they have similar tastes to begin with. The cayennes on the other hand, have a distinct and spicy flavor so they’re currently separated from the main garden square.

Yet for some reason, there’s some set of bugs that is intent on gobbling up the cubanelles. They don’t mess with the other peppers, but for the last few nights they’ve been going from one cubanelle plant to the next, gobbling up the leaves and leaving nothing but a frayed stem. One of the slow-poke seedlings had its two baby leaves then the next day it had one.  The day after, the second one was gone but the stem was still trying to stand up.  The next night, the second slowest seedling lost about half of its biggest leaf, and this morning that leaf was completely gone and a few nibbles were showing up on the next leaf.  There’s a little hope that this will just play itself out, because they’ve only eaten the two plants that were lagging behind developmentally, anyway.  I’m hoping that the plants with at least a half dozen mature leaves are able to regenerate quickly enough that they simply outgrow the pests.  So far, so good… but if the faster ones start to fall we’re going to have some issues here.

Unfortunately, they’re not leaving behind any kind of evidence either. From the time I’ve spent in the garden, I haven’t seen the culprit myself and there’s no visible sign of eggs, a slug trail, or even critter footprints. There was an abundance of mosquitoes hanging out in the corner of the garden that was losing cubanelles, but there’s no sign of standing water or the shady spots that they usually hang out in. And I’m pretty sure that mosquitoes don’t eat leaves, because every time I’m there they only seem interested in my blood.

We started with about a dozen of these seedlings so there are still nine or ten left. There are also another dozen cayenne peppers that seem to be doing just fine.

It might just be time to relocated the lemon grass and pitcher plants, but they’ve been doing pretty well at keeping the deck and open-aired porch relatively free of the biting and stinging types of pests.

I’m keeping an eye out for potential solutions, but I haven’t been able to find any similar stories on Google yet.  Meanwhile, everything else that we’re growing has done surprisingly well!  I’ll be sure to get some pictures up, even if I have to get my better half to take them.  I don’t think she wants me trying to take pictures and deleting the memory instead… again.

Hope you had a good Memorial Day…

June 1st, 2010

Summer sun, BBQ, and swimming pools

I realized that summer is definitely here as I stepped out into the wall of heat early yesterday afternoon. We headed down to our friend’s parents’ house and enjoyed a nice lazy day of cooking on the grill and swimming in the pool.

Well-done burgers topped off with sharp cheddar… hot dogs burn around the edges to that perfect crispy crunch… even some potato salad, three bean salad, and all kinds of fresh berries. My taste buds are saying that I’d be hungry again if I wasn’t still full from all the great grub we had yesterday.

For all that is wrong and messed up in the world, it is always still a great time to enjoy some sun, some good food, and the company of friends.

Here’s to hoping that the military graveyards don’t have any reason to add plots any time soon, and to remembering those who have already passed on… With peace in mind, we can have a few extra people helping us celebrate the sun and the food next year too…

Growing pineapple – nature’s buy one get one free

May 19th, 2010

Just allow 20 to 24 months processing in warm sun and rich soil

Pineapple is great, but if you’re buying the pre-sliced stuff you’re probably spending as much as $4 a pound!  Now don’t get me wrong:  I’m not saying it isn’t worth $4 a pound, just emphasizing the fact that you can get a whole lot more for a whole lot less. Specifically, the last pineapple I got was about 5 pounds for that same $4, and even after tossing out the core and skin, there was probably more than three pounds of really good fruit left over. Enough for two (gluten-free) pizzas, countless snacks, and even some pineapple iced tea.

As I’ve recently learned, the first step to getting the most out of your pineapple investment is to buy the whole fruit – skin spikes & bladed leaves & all that tough gnarly stuff.  Cutting it really isn’t that bad, but I’m not sure exactly what I would have done in the days before Youtube:

Well, it probably would have been needlessly complicated and messy!

Two for one: Turning the left over top in to a new pineapple

If you want to take the next step and double your pineapple per dollar, then you’ll want to make one exception from the video above. Instead of chopping off the leaves with the top of the fruit’s skin, grab the leaves by the base and twist them right off. If any fruit tags along, just kind of gently scrape it out.

The next step is to peel back some of the lower layers of leaves. The plant’s stalk will form roots in water – but the leaves and fruit are vulnerable to rotting. Basically, expose a bit of stem that can be safely suspended in a glass of water without getting any of the still attached leaves wet. Now, just give it a couple days to dry out before actually placing it in to the water. Even with the precautions, the other leaves could go moldy just from the humidity of a nearby water source, so keep an eye on them from time to time even though it can take weeks for the roots to really develop. Remember, don’t rush it! Pineapple takes as long as two years to ripen up to its full potential, so there’s no sense in skipping steps for the hope of saving a day or two.

When the roots set in, you’re ready to move the new plant to a pot. The key during this phase is kind of similar to the last one: beware of excess moisture and be on the lookout for any signs of rot or fungal infection. After a few months in the new pot, new leaf growth will be seen and the old leaves will finally wither and turn brown. Don’t worry – its a good thing!

No frost – no rot

The two keys here are a warm temperature and a soil that strikes the balance between slightly damp without being too soggy. If you see mud or puddles anywhere near the pineapple, its too wet!

Most people also like to grow the pineapples in a pot so that it can be brought inside during the winter.  Other than excess water, the quickest way to kill one of these tropical delicacies is to leave them out in a single frost.  Otherwise, they’ll probably be fine spending a few months indoors each year – just put them near a window that points toward the equator.

So really, that is all it takes:  some sun, a little water (but not too much), and a good dose of patience.

New York considers a ban on salt in restaurants

March 10th, 2010

I wouldn’t have believed it unless I had read the actual proposal from the New York legislature’s website:


Really, someone actually wrote this bill up and went through whatever it takes to have it considered, placed on the agenda, and uploaded to the public legislative website.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Most places use way too much salt, but this is hardly limited to the kitchen – the one place salt actually belongs.  The problem is usually that the “raw materials” are already loaded with salt before any cook actually begins cooking.

Of course, if you’ve ever baked, cooked rice, or fried potatoes, you know exactly how indispensable salt is for certain foods.  I’ll be the first to complain if the chef uses too much in his recipe or when the chicken breasts from the grocery store come packaged in a salty brine, but to expect any kitchen to actually cook decent food without the ability to use a dash and a pinch here or there?  Pure insanity.

I’m all about encouraging and educating people to make healthy dietary decisions, but this micro-management of the kitchen is just out of sync with reality and does nothing to stop people from overindulging on salty snacks and frozen meals outside of the restaurant.

If governments want to get involved in policy that will encourage better eating choices, they should start off by undoing all of the subsidies designed to promote grains and all of the trade barriers designed to protect local farmers from places with better climates and environments for certain crops.  Yes, I’m looking at you, American sugar cane and corn farmers!