August lawns are the worst

April is when moderate temperatures and regular rain conspire to make me dare to dream of a perfected lawn. And then every August, weeks of inadequate rain and blast-furnace heat leave that dream withered.

August lawnIt doesn’t even bug me much that most of the yard has turned a shade of greenish-brown. That should come back to life by late September, and in the meantime my lawn looks no worse than most of the rest on the block.

(The neighbors who had sprinkler systems installed, something we are too cheap to do, live farther down the street or around the corner.)

But I could do without seeing cracks spread across large expanses of the yard. Since these signs of drought happen in the same place, they represent my annual reminder that I didn’t do enough to cultivate a thicker lawn when I had the chance in the fall or spring.

The “hell strip” between the sidewalk and the street appears even worse, with more than half of it overrun by weeds anxious to demonstrate why yard grass should be selected out by this climate. (At least the heat and dryness seem to have taken some of the fight out of the Tree of Hell seedlings that invade the front lawn every July.) I should dig out the entirety of that strip and either re-seed it from scratch or put in some abuse-tolerant ground cover.

But as I type this, the thermometer on the front porch is showing about 94 degrees, and I just can’t be bothered. It’s August. All of this can wait.




2015 gardening report card: parsley FTW

Every earlier version of this annual post has come in November or December, but this time around winter forgot to start on schedule. Until a few days ago, I could still step outside and grab some cilantro, parsley, oregano or mint.

With temperatures that fell into the teens yesterday and a snowstorm forecast for the weekend, that’s no longer an option. So it’s once again time to grade my attempts at growing my own food in our tiny backyard.

(See my reports from 201120122013 and 2014.)

Herbs: A

This grade is almost entirely parsley-driven. I had so much of this stuff growing that I started making tabbouleh just to make it go away (and was then flattered to have a friend with Lebanese ancestry approve the results). Parsley-walnut pesto is another good way to deal with a surplus of that herb; it keeps forever in the fridge and is a good addition to sandwiches. I also had good results with mint, oregano, rosemary and chives, leaving basil as this year’s one notable disappointment.


Green beans: A- 

Once again, I had more of these than I knew what to do with, and too many rotted on the vine. I should have blanched and frozen them, right?

Arugula: B+

Like last year, this did fantastic in the spring, but my attempts at a fall crop didn’t pan out. I’m blaming the crush of conferences that kept me out of town for much of September.

Lettuce: B

Getting this to grow always makes me happy, because lettuce is one of the more expensive items per pound in a store. This outperformed in the spring, but nothing came of the seeds I planted in September.

Spinach: B

I got a decent yield in the spring, and then it was starting to show signs of a second crop in the fall when the weather got a little too cold for a vegetable that fragile.

Tomatoes: C-

I finally stopped trying to grow them on the shady side of the house and instead set up a planter on the sunnier end of the back patio, but the local squirrels kept snacking on my still-green tomatoes until I finally enclosed the whole thing in netting. One last, sad, little plum tomato has now almost ripened in my kitchen.

Cucumbers: D-

I harvested two or three, tops. But since I’d only bought one packet of seeds, that’s not an awful return on investment when you compare what buying those cukes would have cost.

Bell peppers: F

I assure you that I planted some seeds for them, but I cannot tell you what happened to them afterward.

Lenten lunch challenge: crafting sandwiches without cold cuts

One of the lesser-known facts about me is that on Fridays during Lent, I don’t almost never eat meat. It’s not that I’m anybody’s idea of a devout Catholic… but several years ago, I thought that giving up meat on Fridays during those 40 days would be a good idea on a few different levels. Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve stuck with it.

The challenge hasn’t so much been going without meat at dinner (except on a Friday in Austin during SXSW, when I feel like a dweeb for making this sacrifice) but figuring out lunch. I am an extreme creature of habit for mid-day meals: Unless I’ve got a lunch date, I make myself a sandwich.

And that sandwich has almost always been built around some sort of cold cuts: ham one week, turkey the next, roast beef afterwards, repeat. Why not? It tastes good (baking my own bread helps), I save money, I can make the sandwich fit my appetite, and having one instead of leftover pasta or whatever reduces the risk of having the same type of food for lunch and dinner.

I could revert to my childhood staple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but they’re not too filling. So what else if the traditional sandwich formula is out? In case this season has put this question in your mind–or you just ran out of cold cuts and need to make something for lunch–here are a few options.

Grilled-cheese sandwichOne answer is another childhood favorite, grilled cheese, that’s particularly apt when it’s as cold out as it is now. But not just cheese between two slices of bread; you want to exercise some creativity. Here I have to credit the higher-end grilled-cheese options at Stoney’s in D.C. for making me think about including tomato slices, and I’ve since gotten into the habit of adding such extra ingredients as sautéed onions or apple or pear slices, avocado or garlic-scape pesto. The sandwich at right, photographed after I’d nibbled it into a vague resemblance of D.C.’s outline, features the first two additions on that list as well as whole-grain mustard, and was delicious.

The one downside: There’s actual cooking involved, which means both waiting in front of a hot stove and more stuff to clean up.

Credit for another veggie-sandwich choice goes to the Potomac Pedalers bike club, which on its annual century ride serves up these great cucumber and tomato sandwiches at about the 75-mile mark. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of those rides (can we not talk about my diminished cycling mileage these days?), but the recipe was a keeper. I will often top those thin cucumber and tomato slices with some cream cheese and sautéed bell peppers or caramelized onions. Or you can substitute hummus for the cream cheese.

One potential problem: In the winter, good tomatoes are scarce or expensive, and without one of the two main ingredients this sandwich becomes a little one-dimensional.

My third regular choice on these Fridays is a straightforward ripoff of any good bagel place’s menu: smoked salmon and cream cheese, plus maybe capers or thinly sliced red onions, sautéed or not. (I keep coming back to onions as an accoutrement because they are the easiest thing to cook alongside dinner–either in a pan you’ll later use for another ingredient, or in a foil packet on the grill.) Later in the spring, I can top this with some arugula if my tiny garden has come back to life soon enough.

Awkward issue: Despite all of my efforts, my wife doesn’t like seafood and so remains unconvinced of how awesome this sandwich tastes.

So anyway, hope that helps to diversify your lunch choices. Any other sandwich recipes I should be trying between now and April 5?

(Were you expecting more of the usual earnest musing about journalism or technology? I’ll try to get back to that next week.)

Updated 2/21 with a few editorial tweaks and additional suggestions.

My 2014 gardening scorecard

The D.C. area got its first hard freeze this week, and so this year’s outdoor gardening has officially ground to a halt–which also means it’s once again time to assess my attempts to grow my own food in a few spots around a tiny, largely shady backyard.

(See my earlier reports from 2011, 2012 and 2013.)

Green beansGreen beans: A

We literally could not eat these fast enough. The funny thing is, the pole beans that took over the larger raised bed did not come from the bush-bean seeds sown this spring; I guess last year’s experiment in growing pole beans had lasting effects.

Arugula: B

This was once again a reliable performer–but my attempt to grow a second crop in the fall ran afoul of a stretch of dry weather in which I was out of town too often to water the garden regularly.

Lettuce: B-

For the second year in a row, we had good results in the spring and nothing in the fall.

Herbs: C+

We never lacked for parsley, mint and rosemary (you can imagine my excitement this spring at seeing that the rosemary bush planted last fall had survived our polar-vortex winter). The sage did okay, and cilantro and basil briefly flourished. But dill, chives, thyme, and oregano all apparently don’t like me anymore.

Cucumbers: D+

After last year’s near-total bust, we were pleased to be able to harvest a few decent-sized cukes in the late summer.

Strawberries: D

Once again, I failed to water the pot on the back patio often enough or shield it adequately from the squirrels.

Blueberries: D-

The one medium-size and one small blueberry bush in the side yard yielded a respectable amount of fruit, which I’m sure the birds enjoyed very much.

Tomatoes: D-

The pole beans that grew so well also effectively blocked the sun for the tomatoes. After the bean plants died, one of the tomato plants mounted a comeback of sorts, and maybe the two puny specimens I grabbed before the first freeze will ripen on the countertop. I need to look into growing tomatoes elsewhere in the yard.

Bell peppers: F

I planted seeds. Nothing came of them. The end.

Recipe: farmers’ market gazpacho

About this time of year, farmers’ markets are all about the tomatoes. And the more cost-effective ones are all about tomatoes with issues. Sold as “seconds tomatoes,” “sauce tomatoes” or maybe just “scratch and dent,” these specimens have enough cracks, blemishes or other surface imperfections to require them to be sold at a substantial discount–think $1.50 a pound instead of $3.

GazpachoThese tomatoes also fall right into one of my favorite summer recipes: gazpacho. A soup that barely requires you to turn on a burner is easy to cook even if it’s 98 degrees; paired with a baguette, it makes for an ideal dinner on the front porch or maybe at an outdoor indie-rock concert.

My usual recipe mashes up the directions from two stories that ran in the Post in an earlier millennium (from July and August in 1998). It was an insane amount of work when I had to chop all the ingredients by hand; with a food processor, everything’s done in under an hour.

Farmers’ market gazpacho

Makes about 6 cups, or 4-6 servings

  • 1/4 pound sweet onion, cut into quarters
  • 1/2 pound cucumbers, peeled and cut into quarters
  • 1/2 pound bell peppers of any color, seeded and cut into quarters
  • 1 rib celery, chopped (optional)
  • About 2 1/4 pounds seconds tomatoes
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and then smashed into paste with the flat side of a knife
  • 1 cup tomato juice
  • 1/2 cup high-quality extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup sherry vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 3 dashes Tabasco or other hot sauce (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon Cajun or other spicy seasoning (optional)

Cut an x pattern across the bottom of each tomato. Fill a pot with enough water to cover them, bring it to a boil, drop in the tomatoes, and cook for two minutes. Dump the tomatoes into a strainer (pour ice over them if you’re in a hurry) and let them sit.

Throw the onion, cucumbers, peppers and (if using) celery into a food processor and finely chop until barely chunky. Pour the resulting mix into a 6-cup container. Pull the skin off the tomatoes, cut out any blemishes or cracks, cut them into quarters, and push out their seeds. Process about 3/4 of them and pour into the container.

Process the last quarter of the tomatoes with the garlic, tomato juice, olive oil, sherry vinegar, salt and (if using) sauce and seasonings. Pour into the container and stir to combine; eat the next day, preferably with a locally-baked baguette (current favorites near me: Leonora in Arlington, Bread Furst in northwest D.C.) and outdoors.



My (cheap!) three-plant formula for gardening adequacy

This upcoming week will mark the 10-year anniversary of our moving into our house, which also means I’ve now spent almost 10 years obsessively gardening around the yard.

LiliesThis pastime has had its expensive and inefficient moments (apparently, grass seed has grown to hate me over the past decade), but overall my gardening problem has cost me a lot less than I’d initially feared.

Credit for that goes to generous neighbors who invited us to thin out some of their plantings, but also to my early realization that three plants in particular would have a coveted combination of looking nice, growing like weeds and needing zero maintenance: lilies, hostas and liriope.

The first might as well be an official flower of the greater Washington area. Lilies–in my yard, mostly tigerlilies–rebound from the worst frosts, laugh at droughts, can easily be divided, and spread thickly enough to form a three-foot flowering fence. As far as I can tell, nothing eats them. (We don’t have deer in our neighborhood, but squirrels and rabbits are regulars and foxes show up every now and then.)

HostasThe second doesn’t colonize a yard quite as aggressively and cares a little more about details like getting enough water, but hostas are so easy to divide and transplant that it doesn’t matter all that much. Plus, they offer more variety than lilies; I would recommend individual species, but my recordkeeping has been way too sloppy to allow for that. Were that not the case, I could also tell you what species attracts the bunnies that hop through our yard instead of saying “the short kind with small, narrow, unvariegated green leaves.”

Finally, liriope: It’s a gardening cliche, but it also spreads like crazy as long as it’s not too dry. During the spring and summer, it’s mostly background vegetation, but in late summer it sprouts tiny purple flowers. The usual directions call for cutting its leaves to the ground in late winter to help the spring’s growth, but I forgot/skipped that step this year and it made zero difference.

So if you’ve just moved into a house or are about to do so and don’t know what to do about the yard, here’s my advice: Get two of each of those plants, as if you were loading a horticultural Noah’s Ark, divide and transplant each spring, and in a few short years most of those edges of the yard where grass refuses to grow should transform into lush beds of self-maintaining, self-replicating foliage. Also known as: areas you no longer have to mow.

My 2013 gardening report card

The forecast calls for below-freezing temperature tonight, so I officially put this year’s gardening season in the books by plucking the last few, still-green plum tomatoes off their dying vines. That also means it’s time to assess how growing my own food worked this year, as I did in 2011 and 2012.

plum tomatoes

Tomatoes: B+

The removal of a tree that had cast too much shade on one raised bed and, I guess,  better luck made a huge difference: We’ve had a good selection of plum tomatoes since about the middle of the summer–even while the other two plants yielded next to nothing. It was nice being able to skip buying plum tomatoes at the farmers’ market.

Arugula: B

Unlike the last two years, I couldn’t get a fall crop started in time (I blame travel and a failure to focus when I was in town, followed by the stores near me removing seeds from their shelves), and the spring crop didn’t yield as much as before either. Even so, I’ll repeat my prior endorsements: This stuff practically grows itself, yo

Lettuce: B-

I love being able to step outside, grab some lettuce leaves, wash them off and put them on a sandwich or a burger. But without a fall crop (see above), that pleasure ended sometime in June.

Bell peppers: B-

These were late starters but came around over the last two months. Considering what red bell peppers cost in the store, they’ve definitely earned a spot in next year’s garden.

Green beans: C

Once again, I didn’t plant enough in the spring–I could pick enough beans off the plants to make a side dish for one, not so much for two and certainly not for four. And then a dry August put a stop to the whole enterprise.

Herbs: D

These did much worse than I expected, and I can only guess it’s because I took too long to enrich the soil around them with compost. The mint was its usual bulletproof self (it’s in a separate pot to stop it from overrunning the entire back yard), but cilantro was a no-show, and rosemary, sage and thyme died on me more than once. And the basil never yielded enough for a batch of pesto: How pathetic is that?

Strawberries: D

The pot on the back patio yielded fruit more often than last year, but I still haven’t figured out how to avoid having the squirrels make off with too much of it.

Cucumbers: D-

This was not the complete failure of last year, only a nearly-complete one. That leaves me even more confused as to how this vegetable could have grown so well two years ago and not since.

Also worth noting: Not through any effort on my part, I had a butternut squash vine grow on its own in one of the raised beds and give me exactly one squash.