Gardening for Chumps: The Theme Song

Sometimes it pays to have friends in high places- the kind of friends who invite you to a pool party at Shaquille O’Neils house, or who use their magical lawyer powers to get that pesky DUI charge dropped. I, on the other hand, don’t have friends who invite me to party with Puff Daddy in a hot tub, or who get my speeding ticket dropped from that time I may or may not have been doing 77 in a 50.

My friends hook me up with even better things. In fact, I think that I have the most talented friends around, and generous, too. Take, for example, my friend Benjamin Elliott*.

He wrote this song for us at Gardening for Chumps, and I hope it makes you as happy as it makes me.

If you happen to have the kind of friends who invite you to party with the stars, please play this song for Puff Daddy next time you’re in a hot tub with him. I bet “P.Diddy” is always looking for the next hot talent.

Thank you, Ben! You, Sir, are a man worth knowing.

*(You can check out some of Ben’s newest stuff at his SoundCloud page, and other neat stuff at his YouTube page or his MySpace page)


I Don’t Like Nature Anymore (Powdery Mildew Happened)

Remember how the other day I posted this little piece about the glory of Nature? Well, I take it back. Nature is a jerk.

Powdery Mildew aka Big Stupid Mess

This, friends, is Powdery Mildew. I woke up this morning to discover that this had settled all over my squash and peas overnight. I researched this mess and found some pretty great info through Colorado State University.

The vegetables that it hits are usually your peas and cucurbits (such as squashes, melons, and cucumbers). It spreads quickly and leads to distorted leaves, plant tissue death, and diminished vigour. I did what that link advised:

  • All affected plant parts were removed and disposed of in the trash (not compost), so that this gross fungus will hopefully be stopped in its tracks. My pea plants are completely gone. My squash and courgette vines are sad straggles.
  • I sprayed the sorry remains of my squash plants- as well as my (so far unaffected) cucumber plants- with sulphur, a fungicide. I bought it cheap in powder form and mixed a bit of it with water in a spray bottle.

Here are some tips to prevent fungal spread to the peas and cucurbits in your garden from Rodale’s Garden Problem Solver:

  • Limit overhead watering to early in the day
  • Thin plants to let in sun and air for improved circulation
  • Plant resistant varieties
  • Don’t fertilize until the mildew is controlled
  • Do not work around the plants when they are wet
  • Apply a sulphur or copper-based fungicide every 7-10 days
  • Disinfect any gardening equipment you use for the plants with a bleach solution (1 part household bleach to four parts water)

Take THAT, Nature!

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: surely it is impossible for one garden to have this much drama. Perhaps you watch a lot of Dr. Phil and even believe that I am creating all this garden drama because I am addicted to crises.

Well, here’s one more crisis just to prove how right you are: some mysterious force has been cutting off my little lettuce seedlings where the base of the stem meets the soil. I suspect cutworm. I did a little digging around the crime scene and couldn’t find any of the bugs, but I still made anti-cutworm protective cardboard collars for some seedlings (buried 1-2″ below the soil and covering 1″ above the soil). If the protected seedlings die, at least I can rule out cutworm.

This summer, Nature has brought my garden the mysterious tomato wilt apocalypse, a swarm of disease-spreading cucumber beetles, an infuriating and absolutely grotesque horde of vine borers, a Stage 2 Drought, unsightly catfacing, greedy cutworm, and now the pouffy stupidness that is powdery mildew. What’s next? A tsunami? Terrorist rabbits with eyes that shoot lasers?

OK, OK, I’m frustrated today. But overall, I’m still grateful for Nature and all of its gifts and beauty and lessons. Unless it actually does send that tsunami.


I can’t lend you any money if this blog by New Escapologist convinces you to quit your job.

But you should still read it, anyways.


Here’s the post that hooked me:

“What things are required for a pleasant life? Here are my answers.

– optimum health;
– as much free time as possible;
– a few dependable friendships;
– an appreciation of your existing surroundings (which can be enhanced through the basic study of astronomy, botany, architecture, culture, aesthetics, psychology, etc);
– sensual pleasure;
– the confidence to speak your mind in public (and a culture that won’t cause you problems when you do);
– purposeful and purposeless intellectual stimulation;
– a satisfying creative output, in which you have personal pride;
– a clean and dignified living space;
– a modicum of peer recognition;
– some good habits to be proud of;
– few dependencies;
– few secrets.

Not many of these things are commercially available”.

Perhaps you will agree with Pat Kane of Thoughtland, who calls the magazine “Foppish, irresponsible, and very needed”. Thank you, Flashlights and Arrows, for bringing New Escapologist to my attention.

Hey I Found Out What This Is: Tomato Catfacing

Remember this picture?

When I first saw these, I thought that my tomatoes had some kind of rabies. The good news is: they don’t. The lumpy, malformed black scars on the underside of the tomato are called Catfacing. There is a great article about catfacing at Veggie Gardener.

NOT A BIG DEAL: Catfacing is harmless. Affected tomatoes are gnarly, but totally edible unless it’s severe enough that it’s gone all the way through the tomato. And, at least you can safely compost what’s not salvageable.

WHY IT HAPPENS: Catfacing is the result of environmental stress during blooming, which causes developing fruit to produce too many cells. Other fruits and vegetables, including strawberries, can be affected, too. Stresses that cause catfacing are common in lower Hardiness Zones (4-6 in North America; I’m in Zone 6): drought, high winds, and especially temperatures below 13 degrees C (55F) or above 29C (85F). This makes sense, seeing as we’ve had a Stage 2 Drought here. Heavy use of fertilizers can cause catfacing, too.

MANAGEMENT: According to Rodale’s Garden Problem Solver (1988), the best way to avoid catfacing is to plant resistant varieties. You can also take climate/ exposure control measures for your tomato plants (floating row covers, cold frames, planting indoors, etc) but my thought is: I don’t mind so much if my tomatoes look like they lost a bar fight, as long as they are still delicious!

LESSON LEARNED: I shouldn’t have prematurely picked and wasted those poor, unsightly tomatoes. I’m going to let my straggle tomatoes keep growing, and only pick them if they’re looking severely catfaced. Those ones will just get frozen for future tomato sauces. (Still) Delicious!

Gluten-Free Zucchini Muffins

I recently posted about this, which has got to be the dumbest-looking thing to ever come out of a garden. It’s called a zucchini tromboncino. 

It’s the Vegetable That God Forgot. I thought to myself, “what am I gong to do with that”? Who wants to eat a thing that looks like a Muppet?

I prefer my food without a face

Well, I found a recipe at The Gluten-Free Homemaker that actually makes this thing look as delicious as it tastes: the key is to shred it up to the point of being unrecognizable.

There are lots of ingredients here, but if you’ve been trying gluten-free baking, chances are you have them kicking around. The recipe itself is quick and easy:

  • 1/2 c. brown rice flour
  • 1/2 c. sorghum flour
  • 1/4 c. potato starch
  • 1/4 c. tapioca starch (I didn’t have this so I substituted with more potato starch)
  • 1/2 c. sugar
  • 1 tsp. xanthan gum (I used guar gum instead)
  • 1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/3 c. oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 Tb. milk (I used almond milk instead)
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 c. shredded zucchini
  • 1/2 c. chopped nuts or seeds- optional (I liked it with sunflower seeds but I bet pumpkin seeds would be great, too)


  1. Preheat oven to 400F
  2. If you’re adding the nuts/seeds, you may want to lightly roast them in oil on a frying pan on low-med heat until just golden. This brings out the flavour.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, combine the dry ingredients. Then add the oil, eggs, milk, and vanilla and mix well with a fork. Stir in the zucchini and nuts/seeds.
  4. Spoon into a greased muffin tin and place in the oven for 15 minutes.

They are very good, especially with a nice blob of butter on them. Also, I divided the leftover shredded zucchini into recipe-sized portions and put them in the freezer, so that I can enjoy dumb-shaped vegetables from the garden all year round.


The tromboncino looks way better now

Making What’s Hopefully Not Bottled Botulism (aka Pickling)

This long weekend, I learned a lot about myself; for there is nothing to bring out the best and the worst and the Crazy in you like a full day of pickling for the first time ever. I laughed, I cried, I called my mum. A lot.

I used to think that the biggest deal about pickling was how time-consuming and laborious it is. And sure, it’s both of those things- in a big way. But the biggest deal of all is safety. If you don’t can properly, you could get sick. Really sick. As in, dead. So clean working conditions are a must. Get your surfaces and equipment as close to sterile as you can and follow the “official” procedure for canning your items meticulously. And this post is just about what I did, which is definitely not to standard. For legitimate information on canning safety and recipes, check with your local… er… food safety agency. Here: these guys look pretty legit.

I, on the other hand, used my mum’s recipe. Here’s what it calls for:

LIQUID MIXTURE (I had to make this about 4 times for 1/2 bushel of cucumbers):

  • 8 cups water (I used distilled because Peterborough tap water tastes like licking the bottom of a cow’s hoof)
  • 4 cups vinegar (I used white vinegar- because it had a picture of pickles on the front!?- but now wish I’d used Pickling Vinegar. At 7% acetic acid, it’s 2% higher than white vinegar and therefore more likely to kill micro-jerks that could make you sick)
  • 1 cup pickling salt


  • Pickling cucumbers, which need the following prep the night before you can them: wash in cold water and scrub with a soft brush, paying special attention to the knob on the end where the flower used to be. Then soak them overnight in a cold 8:1 water:pickling salt solution. Drain in the morning.
  • Fresh Dill (it’s best to use the flower head while it’s still green)
  • Garlic cloves, peeled (1-2/jar; cut in half if large)
  • Other things I added to some jars for kicks (in shot-in-the-dark quantities): pickling spice (1tbsp/jar), pepper flakes (I used 1/8 tsp/jar); 1-2 bay leaves/jar, pepper corns. Keep in mind that if you put any kind of powdered herb or spice in there, it will make the brine cloudy which may be off-putting.

TOOLS: Pickling jars (I used 21x 1-Litre jars for 1/2 bushel of cucumbers), ongoing pot of boiling water for sterilizing, pot of simmering water for heating jar lids, large pot for boiling pickling solution, metal ladle and tongs, metal lid picker-upper tool (optional)

And here’s what I did:

  1. Wash hands and kitchen surfaces very thoroughly. Keep hand-washing throughout the pickling process.
  2. Mix the water, vinegar and pickling salt in the big pot. Bring it to a rolling boil and keep it there. The metal ladle needs to be sterilized, so keep it in this pot.
  3. Take the circular lid tops off of the Mason jars and place them in a saucepan full of simmering water (they should have a thin ring of rubber on the underside- the heating is what activates that ring so it will seal to the jar later). Also keep a pot of boiling water around in case the tools need to be re-sterilized at any point.
  4. Place the jars in the oven and turn it on to 220 degrees F. And don’t add the jars to an already-heated oven. They crack. I may or may not have learned this the hard way.
  5. After at least 5 minutes at 220 degrees F, take a Mason jar out of the oven. Do not touch the inside of the jar or the rim- that would introduce bacteria to the newly-sterilized jar.

    I read today that it’s actually better to boil the jars for pre-packing sterilization; apparently the oven doesn’t distribute the heat well enough.

  6. Carefully pack the jar with pickles, a head or 2 of dill, 1-2 garlic cloves, and whatever else you might want in there- again, no touching the rim or inside!
  7. Using the sterile ladle, pour the boiling pickling liquid in the jar to within 1/4 inch of the very top.
  8. Dip a clean cloth in the boiling water and wipe the top of the jar so there is no food residue left behind.
  9. Using a sterile tool or a special magnetic picker-upper, lift a lid out of the simmering water and put it in place, without touching the rim with your hands, and then screw the ring on overtop.
  10. Place the jar aside to cool. It should make a POP sound later due to the vacuum that’s been created. After cooling, check to make sure this has occurred by pressing down on the lid; if it “gives” under the pressure, then the sealing didn’t work. Store such duds in the fridge and eat them within 3 weeks or so.
  11. Label (with date) and store properly-sealed jars in a cool, dark, dry place for 4-6 weeks before eating.

    Dear New Treats: Please don’t kill me

** A NOTE ON SAFETY: To make sure you don’t get botulism, food safety agencies very clearly state that after you screw on the lid, the jar should be completely submerged in a pot of boiling water for something like 20 minutes. My mum does not do this because she says it makes the pickles less crunchy. In her words, “I’ve been making pickles without boiling them after for 30 years and no one’s died yet”. It’s a small but serious risk. I only boiled a couple of jars to see for myself how mushy they will get. I don’t plan on giving any of these first unboiled batches away. But before committing to the risk of the non-boil, I did a little research and here’s what I found:

From Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning by the Gardeners and Farmers of Terre Vivante (1999):

ON THE BOIL-BATH PROCESSING DEBATE: “The USDA and the FDA recommend that all fermented foods should also be canned in a hot water bath to protect against botulism. However, traditional lacto-fermentation methods such as those described here seem to effectively prevent botulism by creating a sufficiently acidic environment…”

ON CHECKING FOR SPOILAGE: “In most (though not all) cases, food that has spoiled in storage should be readily apparent. Signs to look for include mold growing inside the lid of the container, on the food itself, or on the outside of the jar. Food that is badly discoloured or darkened, or that is smelly or slimy, is likely suspect and should be thrown away. When food is going bad, small bubbles form inside a storage jar, and gas or liquid may escape in a rush when you unseal the container”.

So, there you have it. I didn’t post-boil and I stand by that choice. But if my posts suddenly stop in the next 4-6 weeks, you should definitely, definitely not let them serve these pickles at my funeral reception.

*** UPDATE***: I tried the first (unboiled) batch of pickles, 5 weeks later, and it killed me. I died.

… Just kidding! STILL ALIVE! They are delicious! Very salty- more than Gabe likes, but just right for me. I will update again later on the degree of mushiness of the batches that were boiled.