Wednesday, October 9, 2013


We've recently had a cool little project going on here at the farm. For Christmas last year, Sarah and BJ got creative and gave the girls a "San Diego Butterfly Extravaganza!" Essentially they took them to the Reuben H. Fleet to see the Flight of The Butterflies at the Imax, then they went crazy with cool butterfly stuff. Milkweed was brought home and planted (apparently milkweed is the only thing that Monarch caterpillars eat,) a butterfly terrarium was bought and a neat learning experience was had.

Soon after the milkweed was planted, teeny tiny monarch caterpillars began to take it over. Contrary to my beliefs, we didn't have to purchase the larvae or eggs or anything - they were very proficient at finding the plants naturally and proliferating. It didn't take long for the young plants to be eaten all the way to the nubs, and those tiny caterpillars gave us a whole new understanding of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. We grabbed a few and stuck them in the terrarium to see what would happen next.

Within days, the caterpillars found their way up to the top of their temporary home and attached themselves to the lid with a silky web. They hung out upside down for about a day and then magically transformed into chrysalises.

courtesy of
Now, these guys looked nothing like the silk worm cocoons I had witnessed as a kid. All of a sudden, these yellow and black worm things completely transformed into these beautiful hard shelled green things like this guy above. It wasn't an hours-long process like the weaving of a cocoon, it literally seemed like it was in the blink of an eye. One minute it was a hanging caterpillar and the next time you looked it was a mint green pupa. I did some research and discovered that chrysalises aren't formed in the same way as cocoons at all. While a cocoon is spun out of something the larva excretes and then covers itself in, a chrysalis is actually the exoskeleton of the bug itself. Basically, it sheds it's baby skin and the new skin underneath is the chrysalis. This is the pupal phase of most butterflies.

phases of chrysalises - about to hatch out of it's shell, a newly formed one and one that recently became a butterfly
The emergence of the butterfly itself is almost as quick as the evolution of the chrysalis, if you blink you'll miss it. I did get a good picture of one just after it came out, though.

We now have monarch butterflies all over the farm and have learned a lot about their evolution and lifecycle, as well as their amazing migration. One last shot of Jeremy hanging out with one of the little guys:

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Great Caper

freshly picked capers
I don't know why I always seem to be interested in producing the unique. I mean, it's cool to grow tomatoes, lettuce and things that we use every day, but for some reason I am always enthralled with funky things that you don't really need to grow or produce yourself. Learning how-to from top to bottom has always fascinated me. Like the one year I made rose beads from our neighbors rose bushes, then actually made rosaries for all of the women in my family. Or the time I made a turducken from the turkey, duck, and chicken that we had raised that year (you can read about that here.) You get the picture. So, obviously one of the things I really NEEDED in my garden was a caper bush.

Contrary to what you might believe, capers do actually grow on plants. And the really cool thing is that they grow GREAT in San Diego and anyplace with a Mediterranean climate.

Our caper bush. You can see it better if you click on it
This picture is a close-up of one of the spindly branches with a flower bud at the end. The tightly closed flower buds are what you actually pick to cure as capers, though all parts of the caper bush are edible. Once the flowers bloom and fall off, you can harvest the grape-size fruits called caper berries. These are delicious, too, and you cure them the same way you would cure the capers. Caper berries are often served as tapas in Spain and taste similar to capers, but the flavor is milder. Even the leaves can be harvested and cured the same way you cure the buds or the berries and they add a similar delicious and unique flavor to your cuisine.

Many options are available for curing, but the easiest way is just to use salt. Pack the just-picked flower buds with salt in a small jar and let them sit for a few weeks. Wala! You have salt-packed capers. Side note- rinse them well before you throw them in your pasta dish or you'll be sorry! My favorite option, however, is lacto-fermentation and it works well for the berries, the leaves and the capers themselves. Lacto-fermentation is also great for adding beneficial flora to your diet, so you have a good excuse to throw delicious capers and caper berries on everything! Here is an easy recipe:

Capers, caper berries and or caper leaves

Pick all your caper parts and put them in a glass jar. Cover with water and let sit for 5 or 6 days. Rinse and change the water every day, making sure everything is covered with water. This phase stinks! Soaking removes oils from the plant that you don't want to eat, and it's totally normal for it to smell really bad, don't worry. Just keep rinsing and covering with water
After about 5-6 days, it shouldn't really stink any more. Now, mix some clean water (filtered so you don't have chlorine) with salt and pour it over your capers. A good ratio is 1 tablespoon of salt for every cup of water (capers are salty) but this is totally up to you. Make sure that your capers are covered with the brine, and put them in nice spot on the back of your counter top and let them sit for a few more days. Make sure they are covered with either a lid or a clean cloth to keep stuff out. After two or three days, taste them. See what you think. If you want them saltier or more pickle-y, let them sit out for another day or two. Once you like what you taste, store them in the fridge to stop the fermentation process. These will store pretty much forever, but they probably won't last that long.

salt cured capers

Thursday, October 3, 2013

What the Thrip?

It's humourous how we city folks farm. I blame our parents and our parent's parents for throwing our agricultural roots to the wind, making us relearn this knowledge from the depths of our DNA. Thankfully we are not alone in our quest back to old school agricultural techniques and there is a plethora of knowledge to be had at our fingertips.

Last year, our (almost) billions of tomato crops barely yielded any tomatoes, and we couldn't really figure out why. This year we got this amazing tomato boom! We had heirloom black tomatoes and heirloom roma tomatoes, small cherry tomatoes and big cherry tomatoes. We got beefsteaks and betterboys and earlygirls and these weird little tomatoes with an awesome lacy yellowish green pattern...

At first we thought that the cool lacy yellow pattern was a type of fancy heirloom we had planted. After a few weeks we realized that it might actually be a tomato disease because these particular plants began looking sick and dying off more quickly than the other tomato plants in our garden. I had a difficult time finding pictures online that looked exactly like what we were dealing with, but ultimately we determined that it was tomato spotted wilt virus or tswv.

Apparently it's a disease that is spread by small insects called thrips. They are super tiny and hard to see, but even more difficult to control. The problem with these guys is that while they don't travel very far, they are super easy to spread because they infect many different species of plants, including some house plants. This means that usually we, as home gardners and mini-farmers, often spread these pests around by things like composting, recycling potting soil and leaving leaf litter around. This type of infection can even be detrimental to cucumber crops, peppers, lettuces - the list goes on. I found a couple of really great websites if you want to read more about TSWV here and here. The second one even has a helpful brochure that you can print out and keep on hand.

On the brighter side, tomatoes infected with TSWV are still edible! You probably shouldn't sell them, but they aren't toxic and they still taste great. If you get the virus early in the season it can kill the plant and really affect your yield, but if acquired later in the season it doesn't do much to your tomatoes except give them some really funky color patterns. According to my estimate we yielded over 100 lbs of tomatoes this season. It's been amazing and we've been indulging in all kinds of tomato dishes. One of my favorites is this delicious tomato paneer dish found here (note that zeera in the recipe can be subbed for cumin seeds.) Just remember that if you do have something like TSWV and are eating the tomatoes, don't throw the scraps in the compost bin!