It’s the Pits!

Spring has sprung, and the farmers’ market shines like a rainbow. Every aisle, brilliant with a kaleidoscope of colors, is also perfumed by the intoxicating fragrance of just-picked produce. Life doesn’t get much better than this.

One tiny bite of a locally-grown strawberry should convince you those Mexican imports found in so many stores are never a bargain at any price; and only a poor imitation of the real thing. And while some produce-lovers obsess over the arrival of summer’s vine-ripened tomatoes and tree fruits like nectarines, peaches, and plums, it’s difficult for the rest of us to think beyond what is in season right now.

And right now features California’s early stone fruits—the ones in season for such a brief period of time. The ones people in some other states consider little more than an urban legend.

Although it’s sometimes difficult to think about eating California apricots and cherries any way other than out-of-hand, occasionally we are blessed with an abundance—like when the price of a flat at the farmers’ market is too good to pass up—and we are suddenly motivated to expand our horizons. Apricots are hardly a challenge, for homemade pies, tarts, jams, and chutneys are perennial favorites, and a delicious way to savor that sweet-tart taste during the months ahead. The same applies to juicy little cherries.

Cherry isolated on white background

If preserving is not your thing, however, consider making a fresh salsa or relish. You and your kitchen stay cool, the time investment is minimal, and the rewards are huge.

I enjoy serving either of the following as a light appetizer, paired with a dab of soft California goat cheese slathered on homemade crostini, or tucked inside a lettuce cup or a crisp leaf of red or green California endive. These recipes also add delicious pizzazz to plain grilled chicken or pork.

Keep these “quick fixes” in mind when planning menus for your Memorial Day weekend. And just about any other day of the week.

Bing Cherry Relish with Fresh Mint
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon local honey
2 cups Bing cherries (about 12 ounces), stemmed, pitted, and coarsely chopped
1 small tart apple, skin-on, cored and cut into a ¼-inch dice (about 1 cup)
2 green onions (scallions), sliced
1 1/2 tablespoons thinly sliced or chopped fresh mint leaves
1 small garlic clove, crushed through a press
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
Fresh black pepper

In a medium bowl, mix together the vinegar and honey until blended. Add the cherries, apple, green onions, mint, garlic, salt, and a few grindings of pepper. Toss gently to mix. Taste, adding more salt, pepper, or vinegar if needed. Use at once, or cover and refrigerate for up to 6 hours. Makes 1 generous cup.

Two-Apricot Salsa
8 ounces firm-but-ripe farm-fresh apricots, pitted and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup chopped red bell pepper
1 green onion (scallion), chopped
1 jalapeño or serrano chile pepper, seeded if desired, finely chopped*
2 tablespoons finely chopped California dried apricots
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
Dash of salt
1 1/2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh cilantro or mint

In a medium bowl, combine the fresh apricots, bell pepper, green onion, chile, dried apricots, lime juice, and salt. Toss gently to mix. If made in advance, cover and refrigerate for up to 4 hours. Just before serving, stir in the cilantro. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

*If you like things spicy, leave the seeds intact and add them to the salsa. For a milder flavor, cut the chile in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds before chopping. To avoid the risk of an unpleasant burning sensation, wear rubber gloves while working with chiles, or wash your hands immediately after handling them.

Homemade Crostini
Baguette (long, narrow French bread), cut crosswise into slices 1/4 to 3/8 inch thick
California olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lay the baguette slices flat on a baking sheet and brush the tops lightly with olive oil. Bake until golden and lightly toasted at the edges, 7 to 10 minutes. Let cool. Use at once, or store at room temperature in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

The Danville Certified Farmers’ Market, located at Railroad and Prospect, is open every Saturday, rain or shine, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. For specific crop information call the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association at 1-800-949-FARM, or visit their web site at www.pcfma.com. This market is made possible through the generous support of the Town of Danville. Please show your appreciation by patronizing the many fine shops and restaurants located in downtown Danville. Buy fresh. Buy local. Live well!

Hydrangeas and Caterpillar Control

Q. I had a horrendous caterpillar problem last year. Can I use a systemic insecticide to control them much like I do with Aphids?

Caterpillar of the Giant Peacock Moth, Saturnia pyri

Caterpillar of the Giant Peacock Moth, Saturnia pyri

A. Systemic insecticides will not control chewing insects like caterpillars, or beetles. They do a wonderful job with Aphids, Mites as well as other sucking insects. These insects feed on the plant juices and also ingest the insecticide, which then controls the population. With chewing insects like caterpillars, these chemicals have no affect. You first need to be diligent in watching the host plants for the first sign of the problem. The caterpillar and worm season begins just after Memorial Day and extends into the early fall. Petunias, Geraniums, Flowering Tobacco and Tomatoes are the primary host plants for worms. In addition, there can be several batches of the same problem during the season, so the host plants need to be checked weekly. I wouldn’t spray until there’s a problem or, you could just pick them off the plants and dispose of them. BT (Bacillus Thuringiensis), is an organic solution that gives the caterpillars or worms a fatal case of the stomach flu; however, it doesn’t work immediately so you have to be patient. Spinosad is another organic solution that will kill the caterpillars on contact and provide some residual control. Captain Jack Dead Bug Brew by Bonide is one of several products. Both of these solutions are widely available. In summary: Be diligent, monitor your plants, and react when necessary.

Q. My hydrangeas grow into beautiful plants each year but do not flower. What do I need to do to encourage them to bloom? I tried 0-10-10 in the past with no success.

A. The failure of Hydrangeas to bloom is not a fertilizer issue. Pruning too heavily causes the lack of flowers or sparse flowering. This tends to be a problem with mature plants in older neighborhoods. Hydrangeas bloom on the second year wood. When the bushes are pruned severely, all the flowering wood is removed. Many times this is the result of inexperienced gardening services. They can maintain grass well but their horticulture is a bit shaky. The Hydrangeas will flower next year, even if you trim the plants lightly this year.

Note: For those looking to replace or plant new Hydrangeas, you can avoid this problem with the Endless Summer varieties. The Endless Summer Hydrangeas bloom on both old and new wood. You get the wonderful flowers every year, whether or not your gardener trims it at the wrong time or too vigorously. Available at your favorite garden center is the standard variety or the lace cap variety, Twist and Shoot.

Buzz Bertolero is Executive Vice President of Navlet’s Garden Centers and a California Certified Nursery Professional. His web address is www.dirtgardener.com and you can send questions by email at dirtgarden@aol.com or to 360 Civic Drive Ste. ‘D’, Pleasant Hill, Calif. 94523 and on Facebook at Facebook.com/Buzz.Bertolero

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