Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Harvest Potlucks

Vivid colors, garden-fresh flavors, and easy presentation
characterize the foods I love to bring to gatherings.

by Renee Shepherd

I go to lots of potluck gatherings – lunches, tailgate parties, dinners, meetings, church events, casual brunches and last year, even a potluck wedding celebration! It’s a great way to enjoy a wide variety of delicious and colorful dishes all made by loving hands. Sometimes someone assigns appetizers, entrees, salad and dessert, but just as often everyone brings their favorite special dish and it's always amazing to see how a complete meal usually appears with little or no planning. I really look forward to these events as places to taste and enjoy new flavor combinations. Best of all, you can meet the cook and learn any special preparation tips involved if you want to make one of the dishes you particularly relished.

Potluck events are a good way to share the work of food preparation and wonderful icebreakers when there are guests who don’t know each other. Potlucks lend themselves to casual get-togethers and enable the hosts or organizer to relax and enjoy the guests without worrying about the expense and time involved in the planning and food preparation. It’s a great way to enjoy friends and family and there’s always more than enough great food for everyone!

To help make potluck preparation easy, I always look for extra inexpensive serving dishes and utensils whenever I go to garage sales; that way I don’t have to worry if I leave behind the plate or spoon I brought with my dish. Other times I put a piece of masking tape with my name written on it in magic marker on the bottom of my serving dish or underneath the handles of spoons to ensure I can pick out my tableware at the end of the event.

Here are some favorite take-along recipes to bring to your next communal feast. These dishes can all be made ahead, include colorful, healthy fresh ingredients and don’t involve a lot of complicated preparation. They all have been hits for me over recent years and I enjoy sharing these recipes with others in the best potluck tradition!

Mediterranean Salad is quick and simple to put together. The flavors of olives, capers and pickles add a zesty richness to the crisp-steamed fresh carrots and cauliflower and are enhanced by a simple vinaigrette that melds all the tastes into a great ensemble. This is the kind of salad I love to offer at a gathering – vivid colors, lots of flavors and easy to eat!

Last summer I went to a potluck at my friend Harvey’s where I enjoyed the stuffed mushrooms my recipe Harvey's Special Spinach, Ricotta and Basil Stuffed Mushrooms is based upon. They were so juicy and delicious I had a really hard time not eating more than my share! These great finger foods can either serve as a scrumptious appetizer or make a satisfying main dish. Their creamy filling combined with fresh spinach, basil and savory sun-dried tomatoes is an unbeatable combination of flavors that complements the meaty flavor of the baked mushroom caps.

My Broccoli and Cashew Salad always gets finished down to the last spoonful. Broccoli’s natural sweetness pairs perfectly with the nutty, rich taste of cashew nuts and is set off by the spicy note of cilantro, all bound with the delicious creamy dressing.

My Middle Eastern Stuffed Peppers feature juicy bell peppers stuffed with a filling of lamb, fresh mint, pine nuts, orzo (little rice shaped pasta) and feta cheese. The sweet flesh of the pretty ripe pepper halves sets off the flavors of the tasty filling that will gently remind you of the exotic places and great food of the southern Mediterranean.

Pea and Toasted Walnut Pâté is a tasty vegetable based dip that will surprise you with its depth of flavor. Fresh peas and toasted walnuts along with hard boiled egg, sautéed shallots and fresh thyme combine to make a consistency, texture and nutty flavor just like a rich pâté.

Chunky Chicken Salad with apples, dried cranberries and toasted nuts is one of my favorites to bring to potluck affairs with its flavors of dried fruit, cinnamon and sweet white wine deliciously contrasting with the tartness of sour cream and a touch of horseradish, all tossed together with crunchy apple chunks and freshly poached chicken breast pieces. The contrasting sweet/tart flavors are hard to beat.

Carrot and Kohlrabi Slaw is a great new way to go beyond coleslaw as I’m always looking for new twists on this classic standard. In this one, the lovely color and crunch of orange carrots are combined with shredded kohlrabi bulbs, whose flavors of sweet apple/nutty turnip marry perfectly with the carrots in a light dilled cream dressing.

I’ve made Harvest Pumpkin Cobbler dozens of times, often by request, as my friends and family remember it always and ask for it often! Easy to assemble, the topping ingredients go in first, then the filling. As the cobbler bakes, the topping rises to the top to form a wonderful crispy caramelized layer over a temptingly rich pumpkin filling, a combination that is quite irresistible. I find this dish much quicker to make than pumpkin pie and more warmly appreciated as a new sweet treat.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Day At The Fair

By Renee Shepherd

Several weeks ago webmaster Sue, her husband Bill and I spent a wonderful day at the Western Washington State Fair in Puyallup. Here are some shots of all the various exhibits; a kind of “Where’s Waldo” arrangement showing highlights of our day. I particularly loved all the vegetable and flower displays (of course) as well as the livestock, the personal collections and the exotic animal exhibit, which I hadn’t seen before at a fair. 

Here’s a sampler:

Vegetable Hall: Giant Pumpkins

Vegetable Hall: Giant Kohlrabi

Vegetable Hall: Lady

Livestock Exhibit: Draft Horses

Livestock Exhibit: Mini Horses

Collection Exhibits: Cows

Collection Exhibits: Kitties

Collection Exhibits: Smilies

Grange Displays

Grange Displays

Grange Displays

Exotic Animals Exhibit: Camel

Exotic Animals Exhibit: Zebra

Flower Hall: Entry

Flower Hall: Dahlias

Friday, September 5, 2014

Harvesting Your Onions

Onions are ready to harvest
Onions should be harvested when they have fully sized up and the green tops start to dry up and bend over.  Pull the bulbs out of the ground and gently brush off any loose dirt.  Lay them out in 1 layer and let cure in the sun for about a week to 10 days – this allows the outer skins to toughen and dry, so they can act as a protective layer.  If you live in a very hot summer area, then let the bulbs cure in a dry and sheltered but warm place out of direct sunlight.
Lay onions to cure in the sun

Snip off roots when onions are dry

Once the onions are cured, trim back the roots and the tops and store the bulbs in a cool, dark and dry place for future use. You can also leave the tops long and braid them together, which is a classic and very decorative way of storing your onions. Each bulb can be snipped off the braid when needed in the kitchen. An alternative storage suggestion (although not as attractive)) is to put the bulbs into the legs of old pantyhose, making a knot between each onion.

Onion Braid

Monday, July 21, 2014

Sunflower Houses, Part 1

By Trial Garden Manager Lindsay Del Carlo

We were recently inspired by author Sharon Lovejoy and her book Sunflower Houses which features lots of ideas for gardening with children, and decided to grow our own sunflower house. It’s a fun project to do with kids because they can have their own secret hideout and experience the wonder of these towering plants with huge flowers that are visited by birds, bees and butterflies.
(read more about Sharon at:

Planting the house
First, choose a sunny site with plenty of room to lay out the “house.” We are making ours a rectangle about eight feet on the long sides and five feet front and back. Scrape away a strip about a foot wide for planting along three sides of the perimeter, leaving an entry opening on the front. Prepare the soil in the planting strip, removing any grass, weeds or stones and turning the soil over. Turn in a few inches of compost into the prepared planting strip and be sure to add an all-purpose fertilizer, working it into the soil.

Sunflower House entrance

We chose to use our Van Gogh Sunflowers to create the walls of the our house. This variety has tall, sturdy straight stalks with uniformly big, bright, sunny yellow flowers. The plants are growing almost daily now and it’s fun to watch the “walls” get taller and taller. 

We also planted pumpkins along the walk that leads to the sunflower house. We will follow up soon when the sunflowers are in full bloom and we invite some kids to play in our house.
Pumpkins line the pathway to the house

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Growing Great Garlic #2: Harvesting

by Renee Shepherd and Lindsay Del Carlo

Garlic is both easy to grow and takes up so little space that just about every gardener, even those with very limited space, can raise enough to be happily self-sufficient in this important and healthy cooking essential. Check out the especially flavorful garlic varieties we sell; they will be available for ordering in late summer. This is the second installment in documenting the whole process of planting, growing and harvesting garlic. Read the first installment on planting and growing here.

Garlic bulbs are ready to be harvested when the leafy tops are mostly dry and some begin to fall over.  Loosen one of the bulbs with a shovel, and gently pull it out of the ground. If it is fully formed with plump cloves, the other bulbs are ready as well. 

Dig up the rest, shake off any loose excess soil, but don’t try to really clean them up at this point because it will be much easier and less damaging if they dry out first. 

Lay the freshly harvested bulbs out on the garden bed to dry and rest in the sun for about a week. (If it is very hot in your area, put them in light or dappled shade.)

Lay the garlic on top of the garden bed to dry in the sun

After this initial drying the garlic bulbs will be dry and skins will be papery. Now it is easy to dust off excess clinging soil, trim the roots back, and cut off the tops. Next, lay the bulbs out in one layer in a cool, dry area with good air circulation out of the sun to cure for 2-3 more weeks. This period allows the bulbs to toughen up and be ready for storage. 
Let garlic dry further in a cool dry place after trimming back roots and tops

For best results, store your well-cured garlic in a cool and dry place (50°- 60° F would be ideal) and don’t stack the heads over 4 inches deep. With good storage conditions, you can expect about 6 to 8 months for softneck garlic varieties and 3 to 4 months for hardneck garlics. 

“Garlic keepers” made of terracotta or ceramic, or net/mesh bags allow some air circulation for garlic bulbs and work well to keep garlic for extended use.

 "Garlic Keepers" and net bags are great for storing garlic in a pantry

Friday, May 16, 2014

Follow the Yurt

by guest author Devona Finney
Renee's Garden Customer Service Manager

Devona has a degree in interior design and studies in green architecture, and uses her creative skills to solve our customer problems efficiently and quickly. We think her alternative homebuilding project is so exciting we wanted to share it with our blog friends:
Devona hard at work
The Yurt inspiration that we like
and will do our best to incorporate along the way
Building a yurt or alternative home structure has always been a dream of mine. I decided to finally take the leap building a 30’ yurt when it no longer made sense to pay high monthly rent.  My boyfriend and I decide to purchase our yurt while on a road trip in Oregon.  The company we decided to go with is called Pacific Yurt and has been around for over 30 years. 
The plan to do most of the work ourselves has given us the opportunity to build exactly what we envision for a home.  I started a blog to document the process involved along the way.  You can take a look here:

So far we have built a 21 pier foundation that will support a 50’ tridecagon deck (13 sided polygon).  We are almost ready to lay down the redwood deck this weekend which will mark a significant milestone in the project. Stay tuned for the yurt raising coming in the next few weeks!
The foundation is complete

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Keeping Bambi Out: Easy on the Eye Fencing Solutions

By Trial Garden Manager Lindsay Del Carlo

This article on how we construct our nearly invisible deer fencing has attracted a lot of interest from the general public, so we've decided to share it here for our regular blog readers.

If you garden in an area where deer are uninvited visitors, a good fence barrier is invaluable. It’s really the only thing that works to protect our garden plantings and fruit trees. We have 2 different deer proof fencing solutions using galvanized cable in addition to wood boards. Both are unobtrusive to the eye, practically invisible from a distance and totally effective in eliminating deer browsing. Deer don't attempt to leap over the fence because they cannot judge the height of the cable and will not risk hurting themselves.

The first method is one we used to construct new wood fencing around a freshly landscaped area to protect rose bushes – one of deer's favorite foods. First we placed 8 foot tall, 4x4 inch fence posts sunk into the ground 8 feet apart. Next we put three 1x6 inch fence boards horizontally, spaced 6 inches apart, between each post to create the bottom part of the fence; these fence boards go only to a height of 3 feet, so the fence does not appear as a tall barrier to the eye.

The next step is to string 1/8 inch galvanized cable between and through each upright fence post. Starting from the top fence board, measure 10 inches up and drill a 1/4 inch hole through each 4x4 fence post. Drill a second 1/4 inch hole 10 inches up from the first, and so on. Thread the cable through the holes to stretch from post to post, and secure at each end using 1 inch poultry staples. There should be at least 2 or 3 lines of cable.

1. Drill 1/4" holes through posts             2. 1/8" Galvanized cable          3. Thread cable through holes in posts

   4. Secure ends of cable with 1" poultry staples        5. Finished fence is 7' tall, yet doesn't appear 'closed'                               
The second fencing method was used for an existing 4 foot tall wood fence that just wasn't tall enough to keep the hungry deer from coming in to graze on our fruit trees and landscaping. We wanted to extend the height of the fence without making it visually obtrusive. This made the 4 foot fence into a 7 foot tall fence.

At each corner, for stability, you will need to install a tall 4x4 wooden fence post (7 ft. of the post should be above the ground) to secure the wire. We drilled three 1/2 inch holes every 10 inches (starting from the top) in those end posts, threaded the cable through and secured it with 1 inch poultry staples.

We then mounted 3 foot long, 1/2 inch threaded rods onto the top of the existing posts. Here’s how: First drill a 1/2 inch hole down into the center of the top of the fence post about 6 inches deep. Next screw the threaded rods into the top of the post (the threaded rod can be set with wood glue if it is too loose). Place a 1/2 inch flat washer with a 1/2 inch hex nut to secure the threaded rod onto the post. Then place three 1/2 inch wing nuts onto the threaded rod, each spaced 10 inches apart, starting from the top of the fence. Galvanized cable, 1/8 inch thick, is then strung from rod to rod, held up by the wing nuts.

1. 3' x 1" threaded rod              2. Wing nuts threaded 10" apart           3. Secure ends with 1" poultry staples

Finished fence. From 4' tall to 7' tall (you can build it as high as you like)

Friday, March 14, 2014

Easy Seed Starting Using Recycled Containers

By Lindsay del Carlo, Trial Garden Manager

Disposable containers can be used to start seeds.
You don’t need to have a fancy set up to successfully grow your garden seedlings. Many people have that one cabinet or drawer full of plastic containers that have lost their lids, a stack of yogurt cups that have long been forgotten or the clear plastic “clamshell” containers that you’ve kept around, and maybe an empty plastic milk jug or two. Disposable containers can receive new life by using them to start seeds. 

Food and yogurt containers or milk jugs with their bottoms cut off will need to have drainage holes. Use a drill with a ¼ inch bit to put holes in the bottom of the containers every few inches. Clamshell containers of store bought produce often already have holes in them, so this makes them very convenient for sowing seeds. These also have a lid that can be closed to hold in moisture when weather is warm.

Milk jug bottoms make good starting trays; Drill small drainage holes every few inches.
Clamshell containers usually have drainage holes and a lid to hold in moisture.

Containers that are about no more than 3 inches deep are perfect for seed varieties that will be sown close together and then transplanted. I am using these to grow tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, basil and spring flowers like calendula, bachelor buttons, Agrostemma, and Clarkia. This will insure that I’m able to scoop up all of the roots with minimal damage when transplanting. Small yogurt cups work perfectly as individual containers to sow large seed varieties like pumpkin and squash.

Starting Calendula, Pumpkin, Squash and Pepper seeds in disposable containers

You can start lots of seeds in your own back yard even if you don’t have a greenhouse. There are many varieties that will germinate just fine outside in a protected location that has morning sun, and partial shade for the rest of the day, especially in hot climates. 

Growing seedlings in these conditions is water wise and less stressful for plants. Note: too much shade will cause young stems to stretch out looking for sunlight, and causes seedlings to become very weak.

Many varieties will grow well outside
with morning sun and afternoon shade
I have made a special table just for growing seedlings.  Sections of ½ inch irrigation tubing have been attached with screws to the sides to create hoops on which to place bird netting, row cover, or shade cloth to protect seedlings. 

Note: Long season, heat loving varieties like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants
are NOT suitable to start in light shade outdoors. They need a warm place inside
in a sunny location like a bright window sill or
use a grow light set up to germinate and grow well.

Stay tuned and we will follow up with the next step for these seedlings grown in recycled containers. As soon as they are big enough, I’ll show how to transplant seedlings into larger individual containers or directly into the garden bed once they are ready.

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