From Seed To Soup. The Evolution Of One Tasty Butternut Squash.

It’s midwinter and I’m anxious to be outside in the garden. As a reminder of what is to come, I prepared a hearty butternut squash soup from last year’s harvest.

Waltham Butternut Squash is an easy winter gourd to start from seed. It rapidly grows from seed to vine, covering a fence or trellis in one months time as you can see from the photos below. I start my seeds indoors to give them an early start. By early June they are safe to transplant into the garden. Last year I grew these gourds along the garden fence. Just look how fast they grow!

Squash seedings along fence line in early June.

Squash plants along fence line in late June.

The squash vine has formed a living fence by mid-July.

Looking closer you can see the ripening fruit starting late July.

Here is an up close look at the fruit.

Some squash are fully ripened and ready to be picked in late August. The rest of the harvest will ripen by late September.

Waltham Butternut Squash not only covers a lot of ground, it is also a prolific producer, needing very little care. Just mulch it deeply with straw and hand-pick the insect pests, such as the Mexican bean beetle, and the squash beetle before they become a problem. Don’t apply pesticides, as many of the insects in your garden are actually beneficial, and help to keep the populations of pests down. Rotating your crops from year to year and using companion plants are additional measures taken to organically beat pests.

The ubiquitous Mexican bean beetle, which as an adult looks like an orange lady bug on steroids.

Eggs and larva of the common squash beetle. It is good to know your enemy in all its life stages.

Let beneficial insects do their job by providing habitat in your garden for them to thrive. This insect is seen preying on a Mexican bean beetle larva.

Once the fruits are produced in July, they rapidly mature and are ready to be picked in late August-September. They store extremely well untouched, however; this fall I decided to prepare all my squash ahead of time and store in the freezer so that I could whip up some quick and easy, delicious dishes, like coconut curry butternut squash soup, in a pinch. This soup is nutritious and tasty, and it chases aways the winter doldrums.

Coconut Curry Butternut Squash Soup (makes about 6 servings)

4 cups puréed butternut squash (or substitute with acorn squash, pumpkin, etc.)
1 large onion, chopped
1 small clove garlic, minced (optional)
1 14 oz. can coconut milk
2 teaspoons curry powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional, or more, to taste)
salt and pepper to taste

If you haven’t already prepared your squash, the following gives instructions on how to do just that. Otherwise, skip to the next paragraph. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Slice the squash in half and scoop out the seeds and pulp with a spoon. Save for another use or discard. Spread about 1 tablespoon vegetable oil on the bottom of a roasting tray and place the squash halves cut side-down on the tray. Roast for about 30 minutes, or until the flesh feels soft when poked and it has shrunken away from the skins a bit. Flip over and let cool. Once cool enough to handle, scoop out all the flesh and reserve in a bowl.

Heat a heavy-bottomed pot with another tablespoon or so of vegetable oil and sweat the onions over medium-low heat. Season with salt and pepper and cook until translucent, about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the curry powder, cayenne, and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, another 4-5 minutes. Add the puréed squash (or roasted if you just prepared it) and coconut milk. Stir to combine thoroughly and bring just to a boil. Using a hand blender, purée the soup to a smooth consistency (this can also be done by transferring the soup in batches to a food processor or blender). Taste for seasoning. Add vegetable stock or more coconut milk if it’s too thick to your liking.

Mashed squash is the bulk of this bowl of soup, so you can rest assured after eating one that you’ll have had your share of beta-carotene, Vitamin A, and Vitamin C. The coconut milk here adds saturated nut fats instead of cholesterol rich fats associated with cream and butter. Furthermore, coconut contains the antiviral lauric acid, found naturally in mother’s milk. Lauric acid is converted to monolaurin in the body. Monolaurin is the antiviral, antibacterial, and antiprotozoal monoglyceride used by the body to destroy lipid-coated viruses such as influenza.

To read more about coconut oil see http://health.msn.com/health-topics/cholesterol/coconut-oil.

For more on identifying beneficial pests, please check out the following resources:

Pocket Guide for Identifying Beneficial Insects in Your Yard

Beneficial Insects in Your Garden (University of Colorado Publication)

****I am adding this on as an addendum to this post. This soup is absolutely perfect with stale bread croutons. Simple take your stale baguette, slice it up thin, place on a baking sheet and pour some olive oil on top. Season with salt and pepper to your liking, then roast it in the oven until it is nice and toasty. Store in an airtight container and crumble over the soup (or a salad) as needed. Delicious! -and a great reuse of stale bread! 
Posted in Coconut Curry Butternut Squash Soup, Edibles, Gardening, Pest Control, Recipes, Soups, Vegetable Gardening, winter squash | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Whose Woods These Are I Think I Know

Low-lying clouds blanketing New Garden Township.

Dropping my daughter off at school today, I noticed some low-lying clouds in the distance. I pointed them out and as she contemplated the scene she remarked, ‘if I didn’t have to go to school today, I’d explore those clouds’. As I pulled away from the school, her comment lingered in my mind. I pondered how often we don’t take the time to explore the simple acts of beauty that nature provides effortlessly. Taking her advice, and a dose of spontaneity, I headed for a hike in the clouds. Luckily, I had my camera on hand.

Into the clouds at the Laurel Heights Trail entrance.

The familiar woods were incredibly different in the hazy glow. Low visibility created a dream-like state, much like sleep walking. Not knowing what lay each step ahead, the woodland sounds were crisper, the noisemakers invisible, perhaps some deer, or a squirrel, or some other forest creature carrying on its business. Leaves continually spiraling down from the tops of giants (Tulip Poplars in this case) sounded like rain hitting a tin roof, I half expected to feel the smack of large raindrops against my skin. Toward the end of my walk in the woods, the light shifted dramatically, reminding me how quickly things can change.

I imagine these woods are like those that Robert Frost would have liked to visit. The magnetic pull of which I can not explain except to say, they often render me speechless.

As the haze lifts, harsh light illuminates the silver bark of the American Beech.

Posted in Fall, Nature | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Falling For Pink

Pink in the autumn garden complemented by fall grasses and evergreens.

Pink is one of those colors that give people a visceral reaction, either for or against. Although widely accepted in early spring, pink is often overlooked in the fall. Perhaps the stark winter landscape contributes to our hunger for bursts of riotous color early in the year. But what about autumn?  Suggesting pink in the fall garden seems a pretty unlikely way to turn people on to pink, but I’d like to plead its case.

A pop of pink livens up the fall landscape.

Typically, autumn conjures up warm images of tawny landscapes draped in burnt sienna, ochre, and brilliant reds. Trees often take center stage, creating dazzling vistas, and colorful backdrops. What if we added pink to that palette? Pink can lend an unexpected pop of color, adding a sense of excitement. Or, it can work in harmony with the dominant colors of fall, lending additional warmth and coziness to an outdoor space. You may not want to paint your house pink or don a pink shirt, but when it comes to your fall garden, give pink a chance.

Plants for pink blooms in late summer – autumn:

  • Lespedeza thunbergii, Bush clover (fuchsia blooms seen in picture directly above, and to the right.)

    Lespedeza thunbergii bursts into bloom in the late summer, early fall landscape.

  • Anemone tomentosa ‘Robustissima’
  • Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Snow Queen’. This Oakleaf Hydrangea starts off with white blooms in June that slowly transition to lime green and eventually rose-pink (seen in the picture below right).
  • Chelone lyonii ‘Hot Lips’, Pink turtlehead. A delightful native plant for the perennial garden.
  • Sedum spectabile (there are so many to choose from) The one below is called ‘neon’, eventually these bubblegum pink flowers turn to a tawny orange by mid-fall.
  • Sedum sieboldii, A low growing Sedum with attractive blue-green foliage and pink blooms mid-fall.
  •  Lagerstroemia indica, Crape Myrtle (again so many to choose from) The one seen below left is the cultivar ‘Tonto’
  • Eupatorium maculatum or E. purpureum, Joe Pye Weed. This is a lovely native perennial sure to attract pollinators to your fall garden.

Sedum spectabile 'Neon' in foreground with Lagerstroemia indica 'Tonto' blooming in the background.

Hydrangea quercifolia 'Snow Queen' taking on its fall flower color.

Posted in Design, Fall, Gardening, Plants | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

What Makes A Well Drained Garden? Adding Leeks Of Course.

Sometimes it’s embarrassing to admit to the things you’ve never tried eating. In fact, before I became a gardener there were so many delicious vegetables and greens that I most likely would have never given a second glance. Growing some of your own food is a great way to try new things and I’ve resolved to grow something new each year. The novel vegetable of 2011 (for me at least) was the leek. Ridiculous, I know.

Leeks are milder than their cousins, the onion and they add just the right flavor to potato soup. They are easy to grow and have no major pests. I grew mine from seed in containers, transplanted them into the garden in early Spring, and waited to harvest them until early September. If I had planned better, I would have planted a fall crop as well since they can take some frost, and apparently a few frosts add to the flavor.

Potatoes are also easy to grow, but having nowhere to store them, I decided to make soup and freeze it so that we could enjoy it throughout the winter. The first recipe I tried was a savory success. It combined a few homegrown ingredients, leeks and potatoes, as well as some dried chile’s that I had on hand from last years harvest, living up to its nickname of poor man’s soup. It also brought out some silliness as my kids and I were preparing the soup. I’d ask what kind of garden can’t hold water? My son would reply a garden with leeks. Get it? Hours of entertainment.

Potato-Leek Soup

Ingredients:

Olive oil (to coat bottom of pot)

salt (to taste)

10 large leeks, washed and sliced

1 T of chile powder

11 cups of broth (water can be substituted for broth)

6 lbs Potatoes (I used a mixture of Yukon Gold and Kennebec)

4 bay leaves

Directions:

Heat oil and salt in large stock pot.

Clean and slice leeks while oil heats up.

Add leeks to pot and cook until tender, about 7 minutes.

Once leeks have softened add chile powder and cook 30 seconds longer.

Add broth, potatoes and bay leaves to leek mixture. Cover and simmer until the potatoes are tender about 20-30 minutes.

Remove the bay leaves and purée with an immersion blender. Do not use a food process as it will make the potatoes ‘gummy’. Add water to desired consistency.

To store this soup, let it cool completely and pour small batches into 1-gallon freezer bags. I like these bags because they store nicely without taking up a lot of space. Plus they can be rinsed and reused. I was able to fill 5 1-gallon bags with enough left in the pot for dinner that night.

Potato-leek soup is absolutely perfect with slices of hearty bread and butter on chilly, rainy days. Sprinkle some black pepper on top of each bowl and enjoy!

Posted in Edibles, Gardening, leek, Plants, potato, Potato-Leek Soup, Recipes, Soups | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Ode to Coastal Plants

Cape May Point, New Jersey is a favorite vacation spot. Lucky enough to have a place to stay, my family and I just returned from another amazing trip. Of course we spent plenty of time beside the ocean, sunning, swimming, and relaxing, but we also took the time to bike and hike some of Cape Mays wilder places. Located at the southernmost tip of New Jersey, Cape May Point is not only a fabulous place to enjoy the ocean, but this tiny beach town is home to tons of wildlife. Home of Cape May Point State Park, a prime destination for viewing birds, butterflies, dragonflies (swarms actually), ghost crabs, painted turtles, and bottlenose dolphin. If you are craving more wildlife, just a small bike trip north of Cape May Point lies The South Cape May Meadows Preserve, a newly restored coastal ecosystem managed by the Nature Conservancy. Both places are well-known to avid birders, but they are a haven for plant lovers as well.

What draws me into coastal ecosystems is the texture. The contrast between the evergreen and woody plants, and grasses. The masses of wildflowers, cattails, and fruiting shrubs. Imagine Van Gogh, utilizing certain brush strokes to create a landscape painting. Now imagine walking through his masterpiece. Get out your flip-flops, and camera and jump right in.

Juniperus virginiana (Eastern Red Cedar), a strongly architectural evergreen plant is abundant in the unfertile, sandy soils along the coast. It is strongly pyramidal to columnar in habit and birds treasure it for the abundant grey-blue seeds they produce. The depth of color cedars offer, and the textural quality of their needle like, scaly branches are additional reasons to cherish this plant. Another fruiting favorite often found covering the dunes is Myrica pensylvanica (Northern Bayberry). Rub its leaves when passing by and relish its distinctive fragrance. The grey-blue berries are late winter meals for birds, and used in the manufacturing of bayberry candles. Like the aforementioned Juniper, it can take infertile, sandy soils, as well as salt spray.

The dunes are also home to a delicate looking aster, Chrysopsis mariana (Shaggy Golden Aster). I saw this one growing right along the ocean side of the dunes, as well as in the freshwater wetland on the inland side of the dunes. It appears relatively tough, and has a long bloom time (late June – October). Sprinkled throughout the tidal wetland was Sabatia stellaris Pursh (Small Saltmarsh Pink, or Sea Pink). The rose-pink color catches your eye when hiking the trails, and the flowers appear as little pink twinkling stars among an ocean of grass.                                    The floral show of Hibiscus moscheutos (Swamp Rose Mallow, or as I like to say, Marsh Mallow) was breath-taking en masse and we couldn’t help noticing their 5-6″ wide flowers from the car window on our way to the point. There are several forms of swamp rose-mallow, pink with burgundy centers and white with burgundy centers are most common, but there is also a solid pink form (subspecies palustris), and some red forms as well (mainly cultivated in the trade such as Lady Baltimore). They can grow 3-6′ in height, and are pollinated by insects as well as hummingbirds. Unlike the tropical hibiscus sold at supermarkets, Hibiscus moscheutos are hardy to zone 6 and will come back year after year.

As a texture fanatic, Spartina patens (Salt Hay Grass), flexing haphazardly in the wind, creating movement and contrast with the surrounding plants, was as important to the overall composition as all the structural plants, and flowers. I couldn’t get enough of it. As a filler plant, it lent the most to the aesthetic of this natural landscape.

Here is the same picture in black and white, notice how it still holds your interest even without color.

There are several other native plants that I did not have time to document, many of which grow in our piedmont soil as well. Think about the daily conditions these coastal plants endure and apply that to your situation at home. The cedar, bayberry, and hibiscus all grow nicely in our area given the right soil and light conditions, and there are several asters, pinks, and grasses that mimic the same qualities of their coastal counterparts. Most of all, get out to visit these natural areas when on vacation. They are our last glimpse into what the land was like before it was settled, and can give us clues about how we can manage our own landscapes in a more sustainable and ecological way.

Posted in Design, Evergreens, Gardening, Grasses and Sedges, Native, Perennials, Plants, Shrubs, Summer | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments