Pennsylvania passion fruit

passion fruit flower opening on the vine in the early morning

Whenever possible, I like to visit with the local “old timers” who have been farming and gardening here for years–in some cases, for a lifetime. I always learn something new from them. Sometimes we learn from each other.

As some of the formerly “exotic” fruits and plants become more commonly available, it’s amazing how often someone tells me, “You know, we always had those around when I was growing up, but didn’t know we could eat them.”

For example, this happened with paw paws. “I remember the stink of those trees,” or “We never ate those–the fruit would just fall, get mashed all over the ground, and be crawling with bugs.” (Hipsters everywhere would be crying about this lost foraging opportunity!)

And more recently, the same thing happened with passion fruit. Yes! Passion fruit!

I was getting a few of these fruits ready for breakfast the other day, and my buddy Chuck watched me with a frown. “You can eat those?” he asked. Yes! Passion fruit, I said. He had heard of passion fruit, but didn’t know what they looked like.

And then he tells me that he has a bunch of those all over the ground every year after the vines die down. Vines? What vines?! This guy doesn’t make stuff up, but I was still incredulous. Was he pulling my leg? I couldn’t believe that passion fruit would grow outside of a greenhouse this far north.

Long story short, he was right! It turns out that passion fruit vines were already there on the farm when he bought it thirty years ago. You can’t mistake these vines and flowers for anything else. We still don’t know how they got there. But now I know that they can survive the harsh Pennsylvania winters. (And I try not to think about all the passion fruit Chuck has been throwing on the compost pile for thirty years.)

This spring I bought and planted a couple of vines, and started a few others from seed. You never know what you’ll get when you start from seed–if the fruit was a hybrid, it can resemble either parent. The vines won’t fruit this year, in any case. They may not even flower this year as they take root and establish themselves. But I can’t wait until next year!

passion fruit flower opening on the vine in the early morning
This is a flower on a local vine, just starting to open in the early morning.
Bumblebee on a passion fruit flower on a vine growing in western Pennsylvania
Here is one local guy who seems to appreciate this tropical vine!

home and garden

coffee tree trim

New growth on pruned coffee trees

Coffee is an interest of mine that fits right into a couple of my passions. “Soy muy cafetero” I would say in Spain. I’m all about coffee. I love the coffee culture, traditions, aroma and taste. But I also get great pleasure from growing my own coffee trees.

Coffee cultivation in the north hemisphere is, well, difficult. Especially if you take into consideration western Pennsylvania’s winters.

But I have managed to keep coffee trees here in a fashion that’s similar to bonsai. I keep them potted. Every so often I trim their roots. In the summer I put them outside, right by my fig and bay leaf trees.

Coffee trees only produce flowers–little beauties that smell like jasmine–on new wood. So, in order to control their growth and get plenty of coffee berries, I apply the Beaumont-Fukunaga system. It’s pretty scary! I cut down the tree to a stump. And then it’s all new growth from there, new wood.

The stump of a coffee tree after pruning
Cutting the coffee tree down to a stump is nerve wracking, but buds soon begin to appear.
New growth on the pruned coffee tree
New growth on the pruned coffee tree. (Whew!)

This method is practiced in Kona by Tom Greenwell at his farm, Greenwell Farms. It’s amazing to see the new growth and by next year the trees will produce more than in previous years.

Buen provecho!

notes from the windowsill: rutabaga micro greens

I continually experiment with different foods, veggies, seeds, just about anything that could be edible. Lots of times these experiments or projects reside on my kitchen’s window sill. When light and temperature are needed, I find the kitchen’s window sill ideal. Sometimes, some of these experiments might be on the window longer than others might care for, but, hey! It’s all in the name of science!

So when I noticed that one of the rutabagas in the kitchen looked like it was starting to sprout,  I had to find out: If I cut the top off and kept it moist, would it produce enough tiny leaves to be a viable source of micro greens?

This discarded rutabaga top sprouts new, edible greens when kept in water
As you can see, this rutabaga top is flourishing on the windowsill, producing edible micro greens

Young rutabaga leaves are tasty. They can be prepared in the same way as turnip greens, adding zest to a salad, stir fry, or other good old fashioned greens.

After a couple of weeks I came to the conclusion that if these rutabaga tops are kept and planted, they will produce plenty of greens. I even learned that eventually these top “cutoffs” will go to seed!

Mary’s cousin’s squash

This is what the squash or melon looks like cut open
The mystery squash, gourd, or melon that grew in my garden in 2014
This strange squash/melon did not look like much when it started to grow, and for all its foliage it only produced a single fruit. But it turned out to be my favorite surprise from the garden this year!

I had a great time this year in the garden growing new things. Different types of beans, brussels sprouts, cucuzza (a kind of squash), just to mention a few. But the most intriguing of them all was the strange Italian squash that grew from a seed that Mary Menetti gave me. Mary runs the Italian Garden Project. She’s always on the lookout for gardeners to grow a few of her heirloom seeds each year, and this year I tried a bunch of different things including this nameless squash. We weren’t really able to gather much more information about it–just that a cousin of Mary’s from Italy gave her the seeds. I’m still trying to find out more about it.

I had pretty much forgotten about this plant. I saw it growing by the pole beans, but I didn’t give it much attention. Then I noticed as it grew it started to climb up the pole beans, all the way up to the top and then all across them. At this point it was hard to miss. A few flowers appeared–not many. And only one became fruit. This squash started looking like, well, a squash, like one of those round zucchini. Then it got bigger and started to look like a small pumpkin. It was just different than any other squash I had grown before. I grew very intrigued as time to harvest it approached. The only way to find out more about it was to cut into it.

When I cut into it I found a sweet-smelling squash, with almost a fruity aroma, like spaghetti squash in texture but with whiter flesh and fewer seeds.

I roasted it in the oven like you would a spaghetti squash and ate a portion of it one night for dinner with nothing on it, not even salt. I wanted to get an idea of its most basic taste. And it was sweet! Sweeter than any other squash I had ever had. I didn’t care for it for a savory preparation, but something else came to mind. It reminded me of siam pumpkin (“cucurbita ficifolia“). This melon-looking thing is actually a squash, and it’s used in Spain and other countries for sweet preparations, fillings and jellies. Believe me, it’s good. One of my favorite treats when I was a kid.

So, I added a little sugar, not much, and cooked the squash down until it achieved the consistency of the “cabello de angel” that I remember from my childhood. Looks like golden strands of hair, like an angel’s hair. It is incredibly similar and I can’t get over it! I have saved some seeds and I will definitely try growing it again next year.

This is what the squash or melon looks like cut open
Cut open, the mystery squash has firm, white, stringy flesh and a hint of melon aroma.
The flesh of the squash resembled spaghetti squash, but it had a milder, sweeter, more floral smell.
The flesh of the squash resembled spaghetti squash, but it had a milder, sweeter, more floral smell.
With just a little sugar, the squash cooked up just as I had hoped. It really resembles cabello de angel--angel's hair preserves. This is getting exciting!
With just a little sugar, the squash cooked up just as I had hoped. It really resembles cabello de angel–angel’s hair preserves.
I made a little nest of dough and filled it with the squash preserves. Delicious! It was a big hit--much more exotic than pumpkin pie.
Cabello de Angel in puff pastry bird’s nests. Delicious! It was a big hit.

garden pe(s)ts

An opossum in my garden varmint cage

Seasons are changing and wild animals are on the move. Our proximity to wild life can be charming. On any given day on my way to or from work I see possums, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, groundhogs, wild turkeys, hawks, geese, and probably too many deer. All within the city limits.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that all these creatures and probably some others wander in and out of my yard.

Last year when bunnies were eating my green beans, I decided to get a humane cage-trap. Lately I haven’t noticed any rabbits in the garden, but I was leaving some fruit in the cage, just in case. When you have two 4-year-old daughters, half-eaten random pieces of fruit are readily available and are a great bait.

For a while the same raccoon would get in the cage, eat the fruit and have to wait for me to get back from work to let her out. I have never noticed any raccoon damage, so I would just release her. I open the cage, she walks out slowly, and looks back at me as if to say, “Get some more juicy fruit in there, and I’ll see you later.” I haven’t been leaving fruit in the cage, so it’s been a while since last time I saw my raccoon pet.

But, without fruit or anything else, last week I came home to find a possum in the cage. I let it out and off it went into the bushes. I really want to know what made it go inside the trap. A week later there it was again! No fruit either. All I can figure is that this poor possum had heard the stories from the raccoon about the cage with the tasty fruit…

An opossum in my garden varmint cage
Last time I let the possum out it was so sleepy that it took a few steps out of the cage and went to sleep until dark.

backyard blueberry harvest

first blueberries of 2014

This is shaping up to be a strange growing season–great rain for the garden, but maybe out of balance with the amount of sun. The plants are growing, but not as well as I would like.

At least the blueberries are doing well so far. I first planted them a couple of years ago. Last year a chipmunk stole all the fruit. This year, my girls were able to pick their first blueberries!

backyard blueberry harvesting with my daughters
I had some enthusiastic helpers, but none of the berries made it back to the kitchen!