Category Archives: gardening

Simple is Best: Caprese Salad

One of my favorite summer salads is Caprese Salad. It sounds fancier than it is. All you need to make it: fresh ripe tomatoes, fresh basil, fresh mozzarella, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and a bit of salt and pepper.

Some people marinate the tomatoes and cheese, but past experience has taught me that marinating it can make even the freshest tomatoes turn a bit mushy.

I just slice a tomato and layer it with slices of fresh mozzarella and chopped basil, then drizzle with a little olive oil, some balsamic vinegar, then sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.

This salad was made with fresh basil and a delicious Black Japanese Trifele Heirloom Tomato picked fresh from my tiny kitchen garden.

Admittedly, the caprese salad pictured here has a bit more cheese than tomato, but this was the last of the fresh mozzarella, so…why not?

For the super lazy cooks among us, this non-recipe recipe can be made even easier by using pre-sliced fresh mozzarella and not chopping the basil.

I’ve also seen caprese kabobs where cherry tomatoes and small balls of fresh mozzarella are skewered along with fresh basil leaves, then drizzled in olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Honestly, with these ingredients, it’s impossible to go wrong.

What’s your favorite summer salad?





What’s buggin’ you today?

This post has nothing to do with creativity or making things, but seeing this not-so-little critter in my backyard really caught my interest:


Here’s another angle – if it’s blurry it’s because she (?) was on the move…


For perspective, those are 5″ laps on the siding.

I wish I’d been able to get its profile or face, but it sure looks like a brown praying mantis to me. But according to the map on that National Geographic site, this one is well north of his preferred location.

Who can tell me what might have drawn it to my yard? If you live in Northern Illinois, how often have you seen one of these insects – especially in an urban setting?

What’s My Garden Growing: Gajo De Melon

Last week I showed you the gorgeous Violet Jasper tomatoes growing in a garden pot out back. This week I have a couple of ripe Gajo de Melon heirloom tomatoes freshly picked from a plant just 20 feet away from the Violet Jaspers.

The Gajo de Melon plant really didn’t grow much. It had some yellow leaves early on so I removed those. I always water my tomatoes from the bottom, but this is the only tomato plant I have that isn’t at least partially protected by an overhang – maybe it isn’t doing as well as the others because its leaves get too wet when it rains. The poor plant looks half dead but it keeps blossoming and has already produced several tiny fruits.

I was expecting cherry tomato sized fruits, but this is what I got:


Yep. That’s a quarter next to the tiny beauties.

Despite the tiny size, they’re perfectly formed tomatoes that offer an intense, concentrated, slightly tart tomato flavor. They’d pair really well with bitter greens.

Now if you want to see a real garden bounty, Bonnie from Arizona shared these photos from her dad’s garden.


Bonnie’s dad in his Arizona garden…


…and some of his garden’s bounty.

Now that’s a real home garden! Is everyone else as envious as I am about that yield?

What my garden’s growing: Violet Jasper

So far my mini-garden has yeilded loads of fresh herbs, a few snow peas, some green beans and a few cucumbers. While there are lots of little peppers on the red pepper plant, my zucchini plants are big and leafy and have produced tons of blossoms, but so far no actual zucchini. Something must be wrong there.

This year I planted three heirloom tomatoes: Amish Paste, Gajo de Melon, and this beautifully colorful Violet Jasper:

Sometimes the problem with heirloom varieties is knowing when they’re ripe. With “violet” in the name, I left my first few tomatoes on until they had a purplish hue. By then, they were overly sweet and a little mushy. I just picked that beauty above (along with some slightly riper ones and another cucumber).



It was delicious.

The Amish Paste plant is big and healthy, but its tomatoes are still green. My poor Gajo de Melon doesn’t seem to like where I planted it. It hasn’t grown very large, and while it has lots of tomatoes, they’re barely the diameter of a nickle. They’re supposed to be the size of cherry tomatoes, just like the Violet Jaspers. We’ll see what happens.

For now I’m glad to have the first haul of eight nice Violet Jasper tomatoes – and now I know to pick them when they look like the photos above.

How are your gardens growing?

Iris You Were Here, Redux

Last spring I posted a photo of a single deep purple iris in bloom. It was just as lovely this year (as was another clump of the same variety that I planted alongside of the house). As I noted last year, to the right of the purple iris was a grouping of giant yellow irises not yet in bloom.

This year, as the yellow flowers begin to fade, another batch of irises — which I picked up at The Pec Thing last year — are just now beginning to open on the opposite side of the fading yellow beauties.


Look at all the buds waiting to open!


A delicate beauty, huh?

All of these were collected randomly from different flea market vendors. I had no idea when I planted them – hoping simply to soften the neighbor’s cement retaining wall – that they would provide more than a month’s worth of tall, gorgeous flowers.

As much as I love irises, they’re a close second to my favorite flowers: peonies. Now if I could just get some magenta double peonies to thrive.

What are your favorite flowers, and do you grow them in your garden?

Volunteer Tomatoes

While weeding my little produce patches earlier this summer I spotted what looked liked tomato leaves popping up near where last summer’s cherry tomato plant grew. I decided to leave it alone and see what happened.

Soon it grew taller and sprouted more leaves. A couple weeks ago it began to blossom. The other day I spotted the first of several tiny green cherry tomatoes beginning to form.

See the first tiny tomato from my volunteer tomato plant?

It’s already Labor Day, so who knows if any of these volunteers will ripen before the first hard frost, but that really doesn’t matter since I can always add them to my annual batch of homemade green tomato salsa!

Happy Labor Day, everyone! (And yes, I’ll be laboring a bit today….no such thing as a paid holiday when you’re a freelancer.)

Pick A Peck of Peppers

Okay, so it’s not exactly a peck of peppers, but my one little jalapeno plant has been producing like crazy. I’ve already picked five peppers, and look how many are ready, or almost ready to pick.

I can spot the peppers amid the leaves. Can you?

(Immediately after taking the photo, I picked four more peppers.)

The first cucumber is ready for picking, and a smaller one is growing a bit higher on the vine.

Cuke #1 a few days before harvest.

The cucumber plant is loaded with blossoms, but so far just two cukes. They grow quickly, so I’m hoping for more.

I’ve already mentioned how well the tomato plants are doing – I’ve already lost track of how many tomatoes I’ve picked, and those plants are still loaded. The only plant I’m concerned about is the red pepper plant.

Pretty leaves, but where are the blossoms?

It’s beautiful, but I haven’t seen a single blossom. Any idea why it’s not blooming? Last year’s red pepper plant did so well that it wasn’t until a month or two ago that I finally finished up the leftover red peppers I chopped and froze last fall.

How are your gardens growing? Which crops are doing best for you this year?

First Tomatoes of the Season

Try to ignore the weeds and half-dead hosta behind my Al Kuffa tomato plant. Zero in instead on the trio of ripe red tomatoes. They were the first of the season, and they were delicious.

I’ve since harvested a few more tomatoes from the same plant which is thriving in a large pot. The other two tomato plants are in my little garden wedges on either side of the driveway. Today I picked the first ripe tomato from the smallest plant. The third plant  is the largest, loaded with the most fruit, but none of it is ripe yet because is doesn’t get quite as much sun as the others do.

I don’t have photos to prove it, but my jalapeno plant has tons of little peppers, and yesterday I spotted the first tiny cucumbers on my potted cucumber vine. I swear they weren’t there the day before.

The only plant I’m concerned with is my red pepper plant. It’s got a strong stem and beautiful leaves, but I’ve yet to see a single blossom. Anyone know what might be wrong with it?

How are your crops doing?

A Blooming Bargain

Not every house has window boxes, so if you’re lucky enough to have window boxes you really ought to use them. Don’t you think there’s something sad about empty window boxes during the growing season?

Until the other day mine were sad and empty, but that’s because I’m slowly slogging away at painting the exterior trim (whenever weather and time allow) and wanted to paint the window boxes, too.

For some reason, the brackets supporting the boxes were painted brown to match the siding, so while I had the paint out I painted the brackets white, too. I think it makes the window boxes stand out a bit more. (This is when I wish I’d thought to take before & after shots.)

It was also time to replace most of the potting mix in the boxes (I only remove about 2/3 of the soil since the old dry dirt and bits of broken clay pots help with drainage), so I bought two 16-qt bags of potting mix at $4.99 each along with flowers for the boxes and three flower pots:

  • 3 white Geraniums – 88¢ each
  • 1 flat (half flat?) of 12 plum-ish Petunias – $7.99
  • 2 6-packs of white Impatiens – $1.58 each
  • 2 6-packs of mixed Portulaca – $1.58 each

Last year the portulaca did really well in the gorgeous strawberry jars my brother’s family gave  me, but I’m down to one now, so I moved that to side of the porch that gets the afternoon sun. I put the rest of the portulaca and geraniums in terracotta pots and set those on each side of the stoop where the strawberry jars were last summer. Here’s the strawberry jar, but the other pots look scraggly so no photo of those until they fill in:

Hey – check out how great Mark’s new porch rail looks with a couple coats of brown paint!

Best part of all? With a $15 store rebate on the paint and $9.17 worth of unused, unopened merchandise I returned, the grand total – tax and all – was just $3.74.  Don’t you love a bargain like that?

If  you’re lucky enough to have window boxes, too, what did you plant in yours this year? If not, what are some of your favorite summer flowers?

Why buy produce when you can grow your own?

Moments ago I harvested the first of the mixed baby lettuces and spinach that I sowed back in April. Here it is washed, drained and ready to go – just like the bagged greens at the grocery store, only a lot less expensive:

Okay, so as I was snipping the spinach, for a moment I worried I’d cut the leaves off my radishes by mistake. I didn’t. (Hey, I never claimed to be a gardener!)

Each summer I try to grow a few more things than the year before, but it’s not always easy with a giant black walnut tree in the yard. The shade isn’t the real problem. Juglone is. It’s a toxin produced by black walnut trees that effects a lot of plants. That’s why I’ve relegated my “crops” to containers and two small wedges of soil that get plenty of sun and are away from the black walnut’s canopy.

Last year I mentioned my dilemma to a neighbor who is a prolific gardener. You know, the type who starts his own plants from seed. The other day he called and said he had a tomato variety called Al Kuffa, that does very well in containers. By noon he’d dropped off three seedlings for me.

What a lovely gift!

Stay tuned to see how well the tomatoes do. I might plant one in one of the wedges and two in pots. Or vice versa. I’ll figure that out over the weekend. After that I’ll just have to wait for them to grow and ripen.

What’s your garden growing this year?

Mika Doyle

Professional Writer & Poet

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