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For The Garden

The Edible Garden

Author: Cathy Cromell
Issue: May, 2014, Page 58
Photos by Art Holeman

A flourishing purple-flowering snail vine envelops the backyard gazebo. The plant is frost-sensitive, and its base must be well covered to survive cold snaps.

Among 80-year-old citrus trees, Gordon and Kay LeBlanc create a garden with a Southern twist

Gordon and Kay LeBlanc’s Phoenix landscape produces so many fruit and vegetable varieties, it could stock a farmers’ market. They harvest 44 different types of vegetables from backyard beds. In addition, their yard holds 22 original ‘Valencia’ orange trees from orchards that filled their Arcadia neighborhood decades ago. They also planted additional citrus varieties and diverse fruits. “We eat three or four things from our yard at every meal,” Kay remarks.

Their lush vegetable beds experience almost no pest or disease problems, which Gordon attributes to healthy soil supporting healthy plants. “My secret is to create rich soil and amend it regularly,” states the organic gardener.

Building Healthy Soil
When mixing soil for new raised beds, Gordon uses one-third of his own “homemade” compost and two-thirds of Singh Farms Garden Blend, incorporating 2 to 4 gallons of coffee grounds. After planting, he periodically adds nutrients and organic matter, staggering applications of either fish emulsion or blood meal (both nitrogen sources) every two weeks.

Gordon LeBlanc allows Thai basil to flower, which attracts bees essential to pollinating many fruits and vegetables.
“As a five-year-old fishing with my grandfather in Louisiana, we used to place our catch in the bottom of planting holes in the garden,” Gordon recalls. “Diluting a teaspoon of fish emulsion in a gallon of water is much easier.” Every four weeks, he incorporates bone meal, rakes 1 gallon of coffee grounds into the top 2 inches of soil, and spreads handfuls of compost around the plants.

To prepare an existing raised bed for replanting, the gardener adds sufficient amounts of organic matter to bring the soil level just below the top of the bed frame, using 25-percent compost, 25-percent Happy Frog Potting Soil and 50-percent Singh Farms Garden Blend. He also adds an initial application of fish emulsion, blood meal and coffee grounds.

Maintaining such organically rich soil promotes abundant harvests. “I keep a garden log of what and when I plant, temperatures and how much produce was harvested per plant,” says Gordon. His records show that they pick about 800 pounds of tomatoes from 44 plants—during the spring and fall growing seasons, for a total of 1,600 pounds.

Growing Tomatoes
Gordon sets out tomato transplants twice annually, with 12 plants in each of three wood-framed raised beds that measure 4' by 8'. (See Tomato Faves, Page 61). Each plant is centered within a tomato cage to support the plant, and shade or frost cloth is used to shelter it as needed. He also grows more tomato plants in raised beds made from straw bales.

Fresh-picked yellow straightneck squash and Thai basil will soon find their way into a tasty dish.
“For the spring season, he transplants the first week in February on the birthdays of two of our children, so it’s easy to remember,” Kay remarks. In July, the spent spring plants are pulled and the soil replenished. Gordon plants the fall crop in mid-August, covering it with shade cloth until mid-October or when temperatures drop below 95 degrees F.

“Don’t store tomatoes in the refrigerator, because it kills their taste,” cautions Gordon. “When night temperatures start dipping into the 40s, it has the same effect as a refrigerator, so the fall crop tends to be less tasty than spring tomatoes.”

Gifts From the Garden
Not all Phoenix-area gardeners can grow fall tomatoes, but the LeBlancs enjoy a unique microclimate that keeps nighttime temperatures a tad warmer. This extends the growing season, allowing tomatoes to mature. After 15 years of gardening in this location, they have learned what areas of the yard work best for the varied plants, although they continue to experiment. The couple recently added a circular shade garden, deciduous fruit trees and straw-bale raised beds for growing more vegetables.

The pair, originally from Louisiana, call their verdant garden, Jardin de Lagniappe. The word lagniappe is often used in Louisiana and can have many meanings, most commonly, a little something extra, or a gift, and the concept applies to their garden in many ways, explains Kay. “The physical act of gardening is a gift to the soul, and the landscape itself is a gift to generations of our family, as a place to congregate and play.” Visitors also head home with gifts of just-picked produce or treats made from garden harvests. (See Fresh Tomato and Caramelized Onion Jam, Page 63).

Last fall, the LeBlancs’ landscape was on Arcadia’s Edible Garden Tour, which resulted in yet another surprising lagniappe. “We had two days of rain before the tour and were afraid that the plants didn’t look their best, but everyone was so complimentary. It was a gift to see our garden through their eyes,” comments Kay.

For those who missed it, the LeBlancs’ yard will be on Arcadia’s Spring Edible Garden Tour, May 10, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. For details, go to

Photos - Clock-wise from top left: Staked tomato vines of all types produce an abundance of fruit year after year. • The homeowners transplanted a long row of white bougainvilleas for their daughter’s wedding 10 years ago. “With patio lights on, the white blossoms pop like another set of lights,” says Kay LeBlanc. The wrought-iron fencing evokes the family’s Louisiana origins. • The LeBlancs’ soil building pays off with healthy vegetation, as can be seen in these high-yielding chile pepper plants. • Twin garden sheds offer a charming backdrop to raised beds filled with vegetables, herbs and flowers. Oak barrels hold a playful mix of annuals.
Tomato Faves
Although the LeBlancs experiment with a few new varieties each season, these are consistent favorites:
‘Better Boy’—Averages 30 to 40, and up to as many as 50, fist-sized tomatoes per plant.
‘Big Boy’—Gordon’s grandfather grew these, so they are a family tradition.
‘Cherokee Purple’—This heirloom variety produces 35 to 50 fist-sized and larger tomatoes per plant. “Best tasting tomato of the varieties that we grow,” notes Gordon.
‘Early Girl’—Produces fruit within about 59 days, so it is a good choice for the shorter fall season. Their first fried green tomatoes of each season are ‘Early Girls’.
‘Red Cherry’—Larger and sweeter than most cherry tomatoes, it produces close to 300 fruits per plant.
‘Striped German’—Has similar flavor to ‘Cherokee Purple’, but yellow and red stripes add different colors to salads.

Fresh Tomato and Caramelized Onion Jam
Kay LeBlanc enjoys sharing gifts of flavorful treats concocted from their garden’s bounty, including this tasty tomato jam.

1 tablespoon butter
3 medium yellow onions, finely sliced
8 cups fresh tomatoes, finely chopped (they can be peeled, cored and seeded, but it is not necessary)
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
5 tablespoons lemon juice
4 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
1/3 teaspoon ground chipotle chile pepper
1/3 teaspoon ground mustard

MELT butter in a large heavy-bottomed stainless steel or enameled cast-iron saucepan, over high heat.
ADD onions and cook, stirring frequently, until they start to thicken and are a pale brown (about 5 minutes).
ADD 2 tablespoons of water and scrape up onions with a wooden spoon. Continue cooking, stirring frequently, until onions have thickened up again (about 2 minutes longer).
ADD 2 more tablespoons of water and scrape up browned bits. Repeat cooking, adding water and scraping until onions are completely softened and are a deep, dark brown (about 15 minutes total).
ADD tomatoes, white and brown sugars, lemon juice, vinegar, salt and remaining ingredients to the onions; stir to combine.
BRING mixture to a boil; then reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes have broken down and the mixture has thickened and developed a jam-like consistency (about 11/2 to 2 hours).
REMOVE from heat. Transfer jam to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, or ladle into sterilized jars and process in a hot-water bath for 10 minutes, to seal for shelf storage.

Makes approximately 36 ounces
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