Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Blueberries: From Alkali to Juicy Pie

Happy blueberry bush in our garden.
What’s that you say? This is supposed to be a gardening blog and you haven’t seen any actual gardening for a while? I’m glad you mentioned it, because it’s not that we haven’t been doing any. Mark has been itching to talk about the extensive array of berries we’ve planted this year, especially the blueberries. He’s also been taking advantage of his new headlamp to stay out in the garden until 9pm. (Hilarious photos to come.)

Blueberries are about as quintessentially “Jersey” as the Turnpike and the Sopranos. When it comes to growing them, the southern part of the state is the perfect environment with its distinctively acidic soil thanks to all those pine needles. While most fruit plants enjoy soil that is neutral to slightly acidic, blueberry bushes prefer to plant their feet in well-drained sandy loam, rich in organic material, with a pH range of about 4-5. This habitat abounds in the evergreen forests of Atlantic, Burlington, and Ocean counties, but not so much in western Morris county. A certain amount of backbreaking toil is required--music to my ears!

At first glance, it’s tempting to lump blueberries in with members of the bramble family (raspberries, blackberries, etc.), mostly because of the similar ways we use the berries. I mean, how hard can they be to grow? Wild raspberries grow like weeds around here, and even the cultivated varieties thrive in less-than-ideal conditions. But the highbush blueberry plant, a member of the heath family, differs in many ways from your garden-variety bramble. In addition to the acidic soil requirements, blueberries grow as individual bushes and take longer to establish than raspberries. That said, once established, blueberry plants can produce for decades, and wild version are every bit as successful as their wineberry counterparts given the right conditions. And that’s the key with blueberries: getting the conditions right.

My first blueberry experiment began 2 years ago with about 8 plants and a new garden space. I read up on planting techniques and made a plan. The biggest challenge was to get the soil pH down from neutral to below 5 if possible. A lot of sources recommend using peat moss and sulfur, so I merrily dug 8 holes in hard-pack, rocky clay and filled them with with some sphagnum moss, sulfur granules, and some native “soil” for good measure. I planted each seedling, watered them once or twice, then dutifully ignored them for the next 24 months; three or four survived but never showed much growth, and the others called it quits altogether. They turned into casualties of an over-ambitious start to an overwhelming new garden. I’m sure it won’t be the last horticultural atrocity I commit.

Flash-forward to Plan B. My latest scheme is influenced an orchardist friend who has actual experience growing blueberries just a few miles from my house. The first step I took was to spread some sulfur, peat moss, and pine needles over the planting area last fall. The idea here is to try to slowly--not instantly--lower the pH of the entire area. Then, instead of digging individual holes for each plant, I excavated a 35’ long trench to a depth of about 12” and filled it with peat moss, sand, some native soil, and a little compost. Importantly, NO sulfur went into the hole. Sulfur is apparently a very slow-acting agent that can take years to activate, and it does not belong in intimate contact with plant roots. Next, I planted the blueberries and dumped lots of compost on top of the filled-in trench and around each plant. I mulched the entire planting area with cardboard [Kate: This lends our garden a delightful hobo je ne sais quoi."] and then dumped straw on top for weed control. The finishing touch is a mound around each blueberry plant made of pine needles and forest litter I dug up from our yard. I’ve even managed to water each plant deeply twice during this hellacious drought we’ve had.

For “fun,” I dug up the surviving stragglers of Blueberries v1.0 and planted them at the end of the new row. I could be imagining things, but I feel like these three old veterans have already perked up noticeably this year at bud-break. Perhaps they’ve been biding their time, waiting to explode with fecundity when conditions turned favorable. Or perhaps I’m delusional and simply enjoy using disgusting adjectives. Only time will tell.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Infusiasm, Part II

The two infusions, much reduced.
In Infusiasm: Part I I merrily picked bucketsful of violets and honeysuckle, then poured boiling water over and let everything sit overnight. Today I finished the experiment.

The syrups turned out to be subtle but surprisingly flavorful. I wasn't sure what to expect from the violets, since one friend warned that commercial violet syrup, like Monin, tastes (in her esteemed opinion) like old lady perfume. I'm relieved to report this is not the case with the homemade version. It's floral and a little fruity without tasting like you ate a handful of potpourri.

The honeysuckle tastes like a garden with bees in it. It's so lovely I had to immediately mix a couple of drinks with each. First I tasted them both with sparkling water on ice (so refreshing!), then I got serious. Here's what I came up with:
A splash of lemon juice turned the violet
syrup from dingy purplish-gray to true violet.

Violet syrup with sparkling water, Cointreau, and a squeeze of lemon. So delicate and ladylike! Not at all perfumey like violet candy.

Honeysuckle syrup with Courvoisier and mint has a lot of personality. You get the floral honey and mint flavors with an edge of cognac that gives the drink some structure.

You can't go wrong mixing either of these with prosecco, too.

You may be wondering which one of these delightful cocktails accompanied me into my office to write this blog post. Gentle reader, it was the violet. Who can resist such a beautiful color?

I'm left with a few questions: Are the violets I used less potent than most? Does it matter that I collected the honeysuckle blossoms on a rainy day? I wonder if the syrups will be stronger if I pick them under precisely the right conditions. I'm happy with the results, but I plan to keep experimenting. Here's my recipe.

Flower Syrup
(Folks, make sure your flowers are safely edible before you start.)

2 cups packed blossoms
3 cups boiling water
1 cup sugar 
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Pick your flowers, using only good quality fresh flowers. Cover with boiling water and let steep anywhere from 12 to 24 hours. Strain through a sieve, then simmer gently until the infusion is reduced to 1 cup. Make a 1:1 sugar syrup by adding the sugar and the lemon juice. Pour into a glass jar and use right away or store in the fridge. These are safe for canning; simply put in a hot water bath for 15 minutes and store in a cool, dry place for up to a year.

Makes 1 1/2 cups.
Peter Rabbit can't choose a favorite!

Monday, April 23, 2012


Aren't you lucky? You get to watch me perform my latest kitchen experiment in real time. Not much is ready to harvest in our garden yet besides rhubarb and mint, so I'm taking my impatience far afield and going foraging. We were treated to the deluxe version of foraging a couple of weeks ago at a little ramp festival in the woods with the best local ingredients prepared by some chefs who really knew what to do with them. My humble contribution was some Golden Treasure syrup I had made from late-summer yellow tomatoes and herbs from our garden--rosemary, some basil when it starts to flower and take on an anise flavor, and the season's first apples. My friend Ben made a mouth-watering sweet-tart sauce for barbequed local pork by pureeing some of my rhubarb together with this syrup, and it was completely amazing.

This got me thinking about infused syrups, taking inventory of what's in season now. Spring has busted out so quickly that I'm afraid if I blink I'll miss something unique and then be forced to wait another year to cook up some obscure recipe. Last year I wanted to try violet jelly but was preoccupied by the garden. I've always loved the fragrance and taste of honeysuckle, too; pulling the sweet stamens out and eating them was a favorite pastime when I was a kid.

The violets are all over our lawn, so it was easy to collect them. They're not very fragrant, though, so how can they make a perfumed syrup? Guess I'll find out soon enough. This week I've been seeing honeysuckle bushes in bloom wherever I go, tempted to pull over when I'm driving and sniff them to my heart's content. Today I picked a huge jarful of blossoms that turned out to be only 1.5 ounces, half of what I needed for the recipe I'm using. No matter, I'm forging ahead!

Step 1: Make a kind of flower tea by pouring boiling water over the flowers and letting them steep overnight.

I promise to post the results whether this succeeds or fails.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Getting There

I can't believe how many strawberries, blueberries, elderberries, and raspberries we've planted (mostly thanks to Mark) in the past two weeks. How much dirt we've moved. How many seeds we've planted. The greens and broccoli are ready for transplanting. Peas and trellises are up, garlic and shallots are happy. Mark attended a grafting workshop, I took an intensive 16-hour apiculture course. We're getting there.

P.S. Did I mention my farmers' market opens tomorrow? So yeah, we've been busy.