Monday, June 29, 2015

A Bushel of Apples, a Pinch of Sugar and a Handful of Teenagers

Apple harvest time starts early in the desert Southwest.  In my low desert garden, it arrives precisely in the first half of June.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, this year's apple harvest was to be a special one because for the first time, my own apple trees would provide a sufficient harvest without us having to pick the trees on the family farm.



On a bright and sunny June morning, I headed out into the potager (my kitchen garden) along with four teenagers and a 3-year old to pick apples.

We harvested 4 large bags full of sweet, tart apples from my 'Anna' and 'Dorsett Golden' apple trees, which are the varities that do best in hot, desert climates.

So, what did we plan on doing with all these apples?

Well, besides eating them raw, the plan was to make an apple pie with a cinnamon sugar crust, apple chips and applesauce.


Now, you may think that making an apple pie would be the last thing that a teenager would want to do.  But, my kids along with my niece, look forward to this day every year.

I make one pie a year, so we make an occasion of it.

Before we get any further, I'd like to tell you about the participants in today's apple adventure.

Ruthie - my 17-year old daughter
Gracie - my 13-year old daughter
Sofie - my 16-year old niece
Gracie C. - 17-year old friend of my daughter
Lily - my 3-year old granddaughter


While Ruthie and Sofie were peeling apples, Gracie C. worked on thinly slicing the apples.


Lily and Gracie had fun watching the peeling and slicing and were waiting patiently for their turn to help.


Lily's job was to help mix the apple slices in a bowl filled with water with some lemon juice to keep the apples from browning.


Once the apples were ready, we made the pie crust.  I use a mixture of both butter and vegetable shortening in my pie crust.  


I taught the girls how to make a decorative pie crust edge using their fingers.


This may have been their favorite part.


To add an extra special touch to the pie, we brushed it with egg wash and then sprinkled cinnamon sugar on the top.


Here is the finished product, ready to bake in the oven.  
*I'd like to note that I do not claim to be a professional food photographer like my sister.  I use no special lighting and didn't take the time to clean the counter before taking the photo :-)

 The kids had so much fun making the pie and couldn't wait to eat it once it we took it out of the oven, which explains why I have no 'after' photos of our pie!

Now that our annual pie was finished, we got to work on our second apple recipe - Cinnamon Sugar Apple Chips.


Apple chips are ridiculously easy to make and they are addictive!


All you need to do is to slice them very thinly - a mandolin works great, if you have one.  There is no need to peel or core the apples, which makes this an easy recipe - simply remove any stray seeds from the slices. 

Lay the apple slices on a cookie sheet lined with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper.



Lily had fun with the apple slices with holes in the center.



We sprinkled the apples with cinnamon sugar, but this an optional step - you don't have to add any cinnamon sugar.

Bake the apples in a 200 degree F oven for 1 hour and then turn the apple slices over and bake for another hour.

The apples should be crispy and melt in your mouth.  A word of caution - they won't last long!

***********************


While this photo protrays three normal teenage girls, their story is anything but average.

Their story together began years ago, before they were adopted and came to the U.S.

All of these girls grew up together in an orphanage in China.  They formed deep bonds with each other and became each other's family in the absence of parents.  They often referred to themselves as "orphanage sisters".

Unlike many adoptions, the girls waited until they were older to be adopted.  Sofie and Gracie C. were adopted in 2006 and Ruthie in 2007.

Along with several other "orphanage sisters", who were also adopted, we had a reunion several years ago in Colorado and since then, both the parents and kids have stayed in touch.

Gracie C. flew into town to visit with Ruthie and Sofie and it was so wonderful seeing them together again!

**You can read about our adoption journey to get Ruthie, here.**


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Drought Tolerant and Beautiful: Whirling Butterfly Gaura

Do you like flowering perennials?

I do.  I enjoy their soft texture, flowers and the pollinators that come to enjoy their flowers.

Today, I'd like to share with one of my favorite perennials that I have growing in my garden.


Gaura lindheimeri is a drought tolerant perennial that produces small, delicate flowers that resemble butterflies floating on the air.

Available in white and pink colors, they are grown as a perennial or used as an annual in colder climates.  This is one of the few plants that you can find growing in a desert garden and in more temperate climates such as the Midwest and Northeast.

This lovely perennial deserves to be seen more in the garden and I'd love to share more about gaura with you and why you'll want to add it to your landscape in my latest Houzz article.




Friday, June 19, 2015

5 Tips for a Heatproof Garden

What do your plants look like in the middle of summer?  Are they thriving despite the hot temperatures?  

Or do they look more like this?



Throw in a heatwave and your lovely, attractive plants may be suddenly struggling to survive.

Whether you live in the hot and dry desert Southwest or in more temperate climates, this can happen to you if your garden is not prepared for the heat of summer.

So, how do you know if your plants are handling the summer heat?  

Take a walk through your garden during the hottest part of the day and look for signs of wilting leaves as well as yellow or browning leaves.  All of these can indicate heat stress.

The good news is that you can heatproof your landscape and enjoy a garden filled with attractive plants that thrive despite the hot temperatures that summer dishes out.

Here are 5 tips to help you heatproof your garden:

#1. Use native and/or plants adapted to your climate.


This is perhaps the most important tip for having an attractive, low-maintenance landscape filled with beauty that thrives throughout the entire year.

Native (or adapted) plants have special characteristics that help them to handle the local climate, including the heat of summer AND the cold of winter.

All to often, we find ourselves with landscapes filled with plants (often with large leaves) that struggle to survive the hot, summer months.  This results in unattractive plants that we work hard to help survive until cooler temperatures arrive.  Usually, these plants are best meant to grow in climates with less extreme heat.

Langman's Sage (Leucophyllum langmaniae)

Let's look at an example of an adaptation that this Langman's sage has that enables it to handle full sun and 110+ temperatures easily.

Notice that the flowers have small hairs.  So do the leaves, giving them a slightly grayish cast.  These small hairs help to reflect the sun's rays, which lowers the temperature of the leaves and flowers.

Mexican Honeysuckle (Justicia spicigera) and Shrubby Germander 'Azurea' (Teucrium fruticans 'Azurea')

Another way that plants have to handle heat is by having small leaves, which limits the amount of water lost, which helps them to handle hot, dry temperatures.

Here in the desert Southwest, there are many native plants that are used as well as plants from Australia and other arid regions, which have similar climates.

To find out what types of plants are best adapted to your area, check your local cooperative extension office for a list of plants.  A visit to your local botanical garden can also be helpful.

#2. Provide shade.


Adding shade to the garden can provide relief from the hot sun as well as cooling air temperatures.  This benefits plants and can provide cooling to the house as well.

*It is important to note that it can be hard to grow many plants in heavy shade - especially flowering ones.  However, using trees that provide filtered shade provide just enough shade while allowing enough sun through for plants.

#3 Water deeply and infrequently


Plants need water in order to survive and not surprisingly, they need the most in the summer.  However, we often water them too often and shallowly for it to do much good.

Shallow watering keeps roots close to the surface of the soil, where the soil temperatures are hot and the water dries up quickly.

Deep watering is the proper method for irrigating plants.  This encourages deep root growth where the soil is cooler and stays moister for longer.  As a result, you do not need to water as often.

"Plants that are watered deeply and infrequently are better able to withstand the heat."

Shrubs should be watered to a depth of 2 ft. and perennials and groundcovers to 18 inches.  You can determine how deeply you are watering by inserting a piece of rebar down into the soil (right after you have finished watering) to see how long you need to irrigate.  On average, 2 hours is the length of time to irrigate to the desired depth.  I water my garden 10 days in summer and it looks great.

Almost as important as watering deeply is the time of day that you water. The best time to water is early in the morning.  Watering plants in the afternoon is not as effective since plants allocate their resources at that time toward surviving the stresses of the heat and so they do not take up water as efficiently.  

Click here for watering guidelines for the Phoenix metro area.

#4 Mulch around your plants.


Not surprisingly, mulch has a variety of benefits and not just in regards to heat proofing your garden.

Mulch serves to help cool soil temperatures in summer while helping to conserve moisture - all important in helping plants thrive despite hot temperatures.

An added bonus is that they also help to prevent weeds from taking root.


Let's take a minute to rethink our definition of what makes a good mulch.  

While shredded bark and wood chips may come to mind, did you know that fallen leaves, pine needles and even fallen flowers can also serve as a mulch?  That is how nature does it.

So, the next time you are tempted to whip out your leaf blower, how about directing it toward the base of your plants where the leaves and/or flowers can serve as a mulch?  They will also help to improve the soil around your plants as they decay.

#5 Ditch flowers in favor of succulents in containers.


While growing pretty flowers in containers is fairly simple in fall, winter and spring - summer can be another matter entirely.  Often, it can be hard to grow flowering annuals in pots throughout the hot summer.

The reasons for this is that the soil around the roots of container plants is hotter than if grown in the ground.  This is especially true for the outer 6 inches of soil which heats up in response to air temperatures and the hot container.  As a result, annuals can wilt and struggle to produce flowers in summer.

Succulents are a great way to enjoy attractive container plantings throughout the year, not just in summer.  Their ability to store water is what makes them a great choice for containers.


If you want to grow something else besides succulents, how about trying heat-tolerant shrubs? Bougainvillea does great in pots as does lantana.


Another tip for containers is to leave them empty in the summer months and wait until fall to plant them.  

When thinking in terms of growing plants in containers in hot climates, bigger is better - at least 2 ft. wide at the top.  The larger the pot, the more soil and therefore, more insulation for the roots from the hot outer zone.


**So what can you do if you do have plants that are struggling in the heat - particularly during a heatwave?  Other than replacing them, you can provide them with temporary shade such as a patio chair strategically placed so that it protects it against afternoon sun.  A light spraying of water over the plant and surrounding area in the evening can help reduce the temperature - don't do this when the sun is out or you may burn the foliage.

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Sweet and Tart Apple Harvest

It's hotter than he**  (dare I use the word "hell"?) outside in June and while most desert dwellers can be found hibernating indoors enjoying air-conditioned temperatures in the 70's - you'll find a few of us darting outdoors to pick apples.



While parts of the country wait until late summer and on into early fall to harvest apples - June is apple harvesting time in the desert.


Many people don't realize that apple trees can grow in the desert Southwest - so do apricots, peaches and plums.

The key to growing these types of fruit trees is our relatively cold temperatures.  They need a certain number of "chilling hours", which are when temperatures are within 32 - 45 degrees F.

When summer temperatures are hovering in the 100+ range, it's hard to recall what cold winter temperatures feel like, but it's those chilly temps that make it possible to grow apple trees.


In the past years, I have harvested my apples from among the several apple trees located on the family farm.

But, not this year.


Three years ago, we transformed our side garden, creating a "potager", which is a French term for a kitchen garden filled with fruits, herbs, vegetables alongside ornamental plants.

In the potager, we have the largest of our vegetable gardens, blackberry bushes, two peach trees, an orange tree and two apple trees.


The apple trees are located toward the end of the garden with the blackberry bushes growing against the wall.

This was what they looked like 1 1/2 years ago.  Since then, they have grown quickly and are filled with apples, ready for us to pick.


Today, we will head out in the morning and pick our apples.  There are so many growing, that I won't need any from the family farm.

Normally, I make applesauce and an apple pie from apples.  This year, I will make those but will add to it.  We will also be making apple chips and apple sugar.  Who knows?  If we get a ton of apples, I may need to find more things to make with them.

My daughter, Ruthie, and niece, Sofie, will help me along with a very special friend who is their "orphanage sister".  

**Next time, I'll share their special story along with all the goodies we make along with helpful links so you can make them yourself with apples from the supermarket.

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