Blooming in November?

A Succulent Pumpkin Centerpiece

A couple of weeks ago, photographer (and regular Northern Gardener contributor) Michelle Mero Riedel posted some photos on Facebook of a pumpkin decorating class she attended, where the students used succulents to create a funky, fun centerpiece.

The finished product
The finished product

I just loved the idea, which is generally credited to designer Laura Eubanks, and after watching a couple of youtube videos discovered that it is a fairly easy fall decorating project. This could be a very expensive project, but with a little scavenging, I was able to create my succulent pumpkin centerpiece for under $20, plus I have a whole bunch of cold-hardy succulents left over that I can plant in my garden. If you have a large collection of succulents at home already, you could do it for less.

Here’s what you will need for the project:

  • A pumpkin with a flat top. I found a pretty cheese pumpkin (yes, that’s what they are called!) at eco gardens in Northfield.
  • Some moss. I bought a couple of bags of this from EcoGardens as well. Keep it dry.
  • A bunch of succulents! I had a gift certificate from Knecht’s Nursery and bought their last succulent bowl for half price. (With the gift certificate, this cost me only $7.) I also cut some tops off of succulents from a bowl that my mom gave me a couple of years ago. The bowl goes outside during the summer and comes back in healthy and lush. I also had a cactus that was on its last legs, which I cut the top off of. Life is cruel.
  • Spray adhesive and glue. I had both of these on hand.
  • A scissors or floral snip or some other cutting thing.

Process

Spray adhesive on the top of the pumpkin and press moss on it.
Spray adhesive on the top of the pumpkin and press moss on it.

This is not usually part of the process, but I decided coat the pumpkin with a sealant to help it keep longer. I’m a big fan of Mod-Podge, so the pumpkin got three thick coats of it, which then dried over night. Do not seal the pumpkin! It will ooze from the inside and stink. Take my word for it!!!

The next day, I sprayed the top of the pumpkin with Elmer’s Spray Adhesive and pushed the moss onto it to create a soft medium in which to stick the succulents. Some of the succulents may actually root in the moss, helping the display to last longer.

A little tail helps you to snuggle the succulents into the moss. Put craft glue on the end of the plant.
A little tail helps you to snuggle the succulents into the moss. Put craft glue on the end of the plant.

Then, the fun started! Time to add the succulents.  I added a little craft glue to the bottom of each succulent piece then pushed it into the moss.

I started by adding the cut-off cactus, which was the biggest and trickiest piece.  Most guides suggest putting the biggest piece a little to one side of the center of the pumpkin. Then, I added more succulents, working around the pumpkin, filling the spaces as full as possible. The succulents I had included crassula, hens and chicks, echeveria and a couple of things that I think are sedum. For texture, I also added seedpods from Baptisia and some rosehips from the garden.

Basic container principles, such as thriller, filler, spiller, apply to the pumpkin centerpiece.
Basic container principles, such as thriller, filler, spiller, apply to the pumpkin centerpiece.

The whole process only took about an hour and it was creative and fun. For care, it’s recommended that you spritz your succulents with water about once a week to prolong their life. I’m hoping this little centerpiece will last from now through Thanksgiving.

What are your favorite fall decorating projects?

From Container to Cookpot: A Squash Soup Story

soup 2Earlier this fall, I bought three nice squash from the Northfield Farmers Market to use in a fall container. When the weather turned cold (and then nasty) a week or so ago, I brought the squash in to put them to use in a soup. Squash are ornamental, and most are edible as well, so there was no reason to let the squash rot on the porch.

This soup turned out especially good and I think it’s in part because I had more than one kind of squash and because of the way they were prepared. The squash included a blue Hubbard squash, a red Kabocha squash and a buttercup squash. (Here’s a great guide to all things squash.)

I have been reading chef Alex Guarnaschelli’s book Old-School Comfort Food (Clarkson-Potter, 2013). For her squash soup, Guarnaschelli first roasts the squash with a rich coating of butter, sugar and molasses. I cut the butter by about half, but it was still plenty rich and delicious. After the roasting, I freelanced things and made a squash soup the way I normally would with onions, wine and warm spices. (Guarnaschelli’s soup sounds delicious, too, but this is my preferred recipe.) It turned out beautifully, elevating a simple soup and sandwich supper to gourmet levels. Of course, I served it with the red pepper relish that I make each fall.

That's a lot of squash!
That’s a lot of squash!

A couple of notes: 1) This is not a quick meal. Do it on a day when you will be hanging around the house for several hours. 2) The amounts of some of the ingredients are variable. Because I had lots of squash, I used six cups of cooked squash for the soup and the rest went into a squash custard. You may need more or less liquid depending on how big your squash are. 3) This soup calls for an immersion blender. If you don’t have one, you could mush up the soup with a potato masher or use a regular blender and blend the soup in batches, though I think that’s a bit dangerous. (Immersion blenders come at a variety of price points. Walmart has one for less than $15; if you spend $40,  you can have this nice one I got for my daughter when she got her first apartment.) It’s a good kitchen investment.

Squash Soup from a Container Garden

2-3 winter squash (your choice on type) If very large, you may only need one

5 TBSP butter, melted in a sauce pan

2 TBSP brown sugar

2 TBSP molasses

2 TBSP olive oil

1 large onion chopped

1 TBSP chopped garlic

1 jalapeno or other hot pepper diced finely (totally optional)

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp Garam masala

1 tsp cumin

Salt and pepper to taste (don’t skimp)

1/2 cup white wine (optional)

1-2 cups chicken or vegetable broth (or water)

Water as needed

1 cup (more or less) whole milk or half-and-half

Prepare the squash: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Also, check to make sure your oven shelves are far enough apart — especially if you have big squash. Wash the squash, then cut them into large pieces and scrape out the seeds. Place the pieces on large trays, preferably with a 1-2 inch lip, and drizzle the melted butter over them. Sprinkle on the sugar and molasses and some salt and pepper. Put a little water in the bottom of the pans to add some steam. Then cover it all with foil and crimp the edges around the pan. You want the squash to be semi-sealed in to prevent the sugars from browning too much. Bake for 90 minutes or more until the squash are soft. Take it out of the oven (carefully!!!) and let it cool so you can handle it.

The soup: Remove the squash flesh from the skins with a spoon or knife. For my soup, I used 6 cups of squash, but you could use more and just increase the liquid. Have your onion and garlic chopped and your spices ready. Put the oil in your soup pot and warm it slightly, add the onion and a bit of salt and pepper. Let it cook until it’s translucent. Then add the spices, garlic and hot pepper, if using, and let them cook for a minute or two. Pour in the wine and let all the goodness meld for about 2 minutes. Then, add your squash, the broth and enough water to just cover the squash. Bring it to a boil, then turn down the heat and let it simmer for 30 to 40 minutes. (If your squash is not perfectly soft, it may need more time. If it is soft, less.)

Blend the soup. When everything is soft and smelling good, blend the soup with an immersion blender until smooth. You may need to add more water because it should be rather thick. Add in the milk (as much or little as you like) to get it to your preferred consistency. Serve with a dollop of sour cream or (my preference) some red pepper relish.

 

Fall Container Idea

Fall container completed in less than 20 minutes.
Fall container completed in less than 20 minutes.

A week or so ago, while I visiting my daughter in Chicago, I happened upon a fun idea for a simple fall container. The container (shown below) was on display at the Morton Arboretum in suburban Chicago. The container itself was large, wide and made of terracotta. It was filled with an assortment of gourds and squashes. Simple, and very pretty.

The inspiration for my fall container
The inspiration for my fall container

I knew that was an idea I could easily replicate at home, and I had just the container to do it with. A couple of years ago, I bought a small, metal horse trough to use as a planter. I ended up making it into a small water feature this year, which I had emptied out a few weeks ago.

At the Northfield Farmers’ Market last Friday, I found an assortment of squashes. One of the sellers was also selling bouquets made of ornamental cabbage and kale. Cute! I bought one and decided to use it as an accent in the container. The kale and ornamental cabbages are basically cut flowers, so I needed to keep them in water. To set up the container and keep the squashes elevated, I flipped a couple of pots over and set them in the trough. Then I filled a couple of tall canning jars with water and placed one in the back of the container and one in the front.

Pots elevate the gourds and a jar of water keeps the kale fresh.
Pots elevate the gourds and a jar of water keeps the kale fresh.

I put the kale in the water jar in the back and three of the cabbage in the water jar in front. The squash were balanced on the upside down pots. It looked nice, but I had one more cabbage and a pumpkin left. I put the cabbage in another jar of water set inside a colorful container and set the pumpkin down in front of the trough. Voila! Instant fall container.

Once I had everything bought, putting the container together took less than 20 minutes.

I’ve tried a couple of fall container ideas before including planting a pumpkin here and here. What’s your favorite fall container idea?

Fall container in less than 20 minutes!
Love the texture in this arrangement.

Will Green Tomatoes Ripen on the Counter?

green tomatoes
green tomatoes ripen
The progression of a green tomato

I got a chuckle out of yesterday’s gardening column in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, in which garden writer Bonnie Blodgett bemoaned her difficulties getting green tomatoes to ripen indoors. I’ve also struggled with that issue, but am having better than usual luck this year,  just lining them up on the counter. Most of the tomatoes shown were picked about 10 days ago as green ones. I’ve been told that if there is a touch of white on the bottom of the fruit, it will ripen, and all of these had that little bit of white.

The photo shows the stages the tomatoes will go through as they go from green to white to pinkish to deeper pink then red. I plan to eat the reddest one today. Like Bonnie, I’ve discovered the ripened indoors tomatoes go soft pretty quickly. When they hit pale red, it’s salad time!

Have you had luck ripening tomatoes indoors?

Hanging Tomatoes to Extend the Garden Season

Brandywine ripening
Brandywine ripening
Half-ripe Brandywine tomato

For many northern gardeners, the recent bouts with frost have come too soon. I don’t want to say good-bye to my flowers yet, and I have dozens of green tomatoes still on the vine. When a light frost struck the garden last night, I decided it was time to take action.

The most recent issue of Northern Gardener has an article about ways to stretch the vegetable gardening season. One of the tips was to hang tomato plants upside down to harvest more tomatoes. So, instead of picking each tomato and wrapping it in newspaper, I yanked out several plants by the roots. The article, written by author and blogger Colleen Vanderlinden, suggests hanging the tomato plants in the basement or garage. I was a bit concerned about the mess with that idea, so instead, I hung them on a drying rack we normally use for clothes on our back patio. I’ll cover the rack at night with a blanket or plastic sheet and put it close to the house to keep it cozy.

Hanging tomatoes
Three huge tomato plants hanging from a drying rack in hopes of getting ripe.

According to the article, the tomatoes will ripen gradually and you can pick them over several weeks. Of course, with their roots out of the ground, the plants will eventually shrivel. At that point, I will harvest any remaining fruits and put the rest of the plant in the compost pile. I’ve never heard of this idea before, but it sounds like a great way to extend the vegetable season.

What are you doing to extend the harvest season this year?

November Blooms

'Bee's Jubilee'

November can be a pretty month in the North, especially if you like the subdued beauty of shape and muted color that marks our usual landscape. But pink flowers? Not usually.

Superbena

Still this weekend while cleaning up the garden, I came across two very unexpected blooms. To my surprise, they were still out there this morning, after our first dusting of snow fell overnight. On the pergola out back, the ‘Bee’s Jubilee’ clematis put out a couple of last blooms in the dim sun. Then, to my surprise, I found this pot of Superbena ‘Coral Red’, an annual verbena that came as part of the Proven Winners trial plants. It did not do well early in the summer, which I attributed to a soil mix that never seemed to dry out. (My fault, not PW’s.) But with the dry weather this fall, it decided to bloom.

What a cheerful surprise!