This year my garden has been a bit of a disappointment. Partially my own doing, but not completely. I always get excited when I order seeds for different kinds of peppers and tomatoes back in February, imagining everything I will do with them once they ripen later in the summer. But the time lag between that flush of anticipation when I’m planting the seeds, through tending them all spring in my basement greenhouse, through getting those seedlings into the ground, then finally harvest, is so long – something like 8 – 9 months – that by the time things are ripening I often forget why I was excited about planting that particular variety in the first place.
This year was even more difficult. We had such a crazy rainy spring that lasted into early summer that I didn’t get my seedlings into the ground until June 10. The very next day, the temperature dropped dramatically and a hailstorm moved in, followed by snow that stuck around for a few hours. So my seedlings were pretty battered and frozen. That was a Sunday. By Friday, a heat wave had come on and it was 105 degrees! An exceedingly extreme introduction for my seedlings to their summer home and they were understandably a bit shell-shocked.
Then the voles moved in. I lost count of how many of my seedlings they stole. Every time I went out to the garden there was at least one new empty spot where a seedling had once tried to make it. I had saved the extra seedlings that I didn’t have room for the first time around, so I would just plant a new one in the empty space. But that meant that those seedlings got an even later start to the growing season.
And something ate all of my cucumber sprouts, but by that time, it was early July and it was just too late to plant them again. Not to mention this summer was consistently, brutally hot, so anything I planted at that point would have just burned to a crisp as soon as it dared to peek its delicate flesh out of the ground. So I just gave up on cucumbers. There was a certain relief there though – as much as I love cucumbers, it was nice to have one season where I didn’t feel guilty about all the cucumbers piling up while I frantically tried to turn them into pickles before they went bad. That’s a facet of gardening I didn’t anticipate when I was daydreaming about having a big garden back in the day. The guilt. And the panic.
By July it was all-out war on the voles. I started with trying to remove their habitat to make it harder for them to breed and hide from predators, so I cleaned out all of the brush that was surrounding the outside of the garden fencing. As I was getting to the bottom of it, I heard little tiny squeaking noises coming from just below the ground, and I looked down and saw the sweetest little baby vole, with its eyes still closed, squeaking away.
And this is what it’s come to for me: I raised my large clippers over my head and started pounding away at that little vole and smashed it to pieces. Then another one started squeaking, and I called Copper over and she dug down into the soil after it. We had just gotten Copper a month before and although she was supposed to be a vermin hunter, she hadn’t shown much interest up to that point. But that baby vole really gave her a taste for the kill – she pulled it out of the ground and crunched it.
We high-fived and felt proud of our ability to defend our food (not really – actually, I started crying and felt terrible that I am now reduced to a being a killer of defenseless animals).
But I have to say, that was the beginning of getting those stupid voles under control. Copper has now killed at least 15 of them, and every few days she goes out with me to the garden and spends an hour or so snorting through their holes in the garden beds, yanking them out and crunching them. It’s pretty amazing how good she is at it. How many dogs get to do what they were bred to do in this modern age? She is definitely in doggy paradise, and we have an invaluable rodent hunter to help us keep the varmints in check. Win win.
So with the bodies piling up I was losing fewer seedlings and almost everything was starting to grow. It’s been a reasonably good year for zucchini and eggplant, but I think it’s just been too consistently hot for green beans (I read recently that this is the hottest summer on record in California. I’m not sure how they measure that, but I can personally attest to the fact that it has been ungodly hot). And while I had a ton green tomatoes on the vine, it was way too hot for them to ripen. By mid-September I had only harvested about 3 ripe tomatoes. Even now the harvest is pretty dismal.
The selection of peppers I ended up with is pretty random since so many of my original seedlings were eaten, but the ones that survived are still going strong, even though we are now entering the cool rainy season. I planted Aleppo peppers for the first time this year, with the intention of smoking and drying them, then grinding into powder. Luckily I still ended up with two very prolific Aleppo pepper plants.
For this experiment I needed to get a smoker. Knowing I probably wouldn’t do any smoking if it was going to be a whole production, I settled on an electric smoker that I could just plug in, add some wood chips, and start the smokin’. I also broke down and bought a high-end dehydrator to replace my 25 year-old Snackmaster that has served me well, but wasn’t going to be big enough for this task.
I guess most people get smokers for meat or fish, but personally I’m interested in smoking veggies. I filled the smoker with the Aleppo peppers, some Sahuaro peppers (similar to Anaheims), jalapenos, and eggplant. I also brined and smoked a whole chicken. I made a smoked eggplant baba ghanoush that was divine, and a lemon cream sauce with smoked jalapenos and smoked chicken that I served over spaghetti squash.
The Aleppos are now smoked and dried, waiting for me to grind them into powder, although there are still Aleppos ripening on a daily basis so I should end up with a large jar of ground Aleppo pepper when it’s all over. And last week I broke down and tried to smoke meat, brining a pork shoulder for a few days, then let it sit for another few days with a dry rub, and finally 12 hours of smoking with mesquite wood chips. I’m sure the purists would be appalled at my use of an electric smoker but it’s definitely working for me. I can take the crazy amounts of peppers coming out of my garden, smoke them for about an hour, then chop them up and freeze in portions that I will be able to add to sauces, soups and chilis all winter to add an extra smoky depth.
So thanks to Copper, we got the voles under control, the garden recovered, and our freezer is filled with smoked yumminess. Life is good as we head into our rainy season.