Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Winter Squash

Below are photographs of our butternut and spaghetti squash harvest. They are a couple of my favorite types of more than two dozen common varieties of winter squash. They are prolific, easy to grow, and very nutritious. They are called winter squash because when stored properly, they will last a long time and are a staple of our winter diet. Before storing them we rinse them in water to which we add a few drops of chlorine. We then store them in bins in a cool dry location. The garage usually works fine. They are so easy to eat by just splitting them, removing the seeds and roasting them in the oven or microwave. Spooning the cooked flesh out of the rind and serving with butter, salt, and pepper turn them into taste sensations. But they are also great in casseroles and pies. Flesh colors of winter squash range the spectrum from pale yellow to deep orange for a visual sensation. We believe that squashes are the staff of life and every garden needs a variety of them.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Late blight- will it return next year?

Over the Labor Day weekend I had to pull out the 22 tomato plants in my home garden that were infected with late blight. I harvested the green tomatoes, stuffed the plants in large plastic bags and put them out with the trash.

A number of my neighbors and co-workers in Howard Co. had tomato plants that succumbed to this wicked disease. This summer, Home and Garden Information Center staff communicated with dozens of home gardeners across the state who reported late blight symptoms on their tomato plants.

I recently spoke with Karen Rane, Director of the Plant Diagnostic Lab at the U of MD. She said that the fungus-like pathogen that causes late blight- Phytopthora infestans- could only survive the winter on living host tissue. Tomato and potato plants die with the first hard frost, but pieces of un-harvested potato could remain in the soil. It's very important that all tomato and potato plants, especially potato tubers, be removed and discarded.

So will we see a repeat of this problem next year? Very unlikely, because three factors must be present at the same time and place- the host plant (potato or tomato); cool to mild, wet weather; and lots of disease spores. In 2009,large numbers of infected Southern-grown transplants were shipped into MD and other states for sale to home gardeners. Spores were blown around to new host plants and the disease spread from garden to garden.

There is no need to sterilize stakes and cages. It's always a good idea to rotate crops if you have the room in your garden. But it's ok to plant tomatoes in the same spot next year if that's the only good spot you have.

Read this excellent list of FAQs from Meg McGrath, Plant Pathologist at Cornell University.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Vegetable love

It was great to have so many people visiting our vegetable garden at the August 29 open house. Please come see us again on October 3 and 4, Saturday and Sunday, from 11 to 4, for the Harvest Festival. This is a great event through the entire Agricultural Farm History Park, with activities for kids and adults that you can read about at the park site. The Master Gardeners will be there to answer your gardening questions and we'll have fun games and crafts for the kids as well, and I hope lots of vegetables and flowers and insects for you to look at. (Also check out our neighbors, next fenced area over from our garden, the trial garden of the National Capital Dahlia Society; come on Saturday and they should have spectacular bouquets on sale for great prices.)

Although it's quite possible to keep a vegetable garden going late into the fall and even through the winter with protection, we give ourselves a break in the demo garden and let things wind down beginning in October, with final clean-up in November. Through the season we enjoy lots of the products of our garden, and while we invariably have disappointments, we also have favorites, veggies that go on the YES WE MUST GROW THAT AGAIN list. Here are two of mine, which I highlight because in one way they're total opposites, but have a certain determination and vigor in common.

Now, English majors take note, I am aware that when Andrew Marvell wrote "My vegetable love should grow/Vaster than empires and more slow" it was a mere metaphor, and in fact although he did visit Italy in the 1640s I think the vast vegetable he would have encountered there would have been the cucuzzi gourd illustrated by Jon in his last post, and not yet its successor in the native cuisine, the squash known as zucchetta, zucchino rampicante, or tromboncino. (The cucuzzi or cucuzza is also called zucca a tromba, or so I gather from William Woys Weaver's excellent 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From. Names are very confusing. So are botanical and culinary histories, so I apologize to anyone I've been baffling by mixing up these vegetables this year!)

And I wouldn't say the zucchetta grows slowly, either. In fact, turn around and it's grown bigger on you.

(photos by Barbara Knapp)

It is a tasty squash, though, and fun to grow if you have the space. It grows well up a trellis if you speak to it persuasively, and keep coaxing it in the right direction, though really it would prefer to spread out horizontally across your entire garden and smother your eggplants and bush beans and then grow up the trellis you really meant for fall peas. The fruits will curl a little as they hang and a lot if they lie on the ground. Next year we'll grow it on the tall fence where the scarlet runner beans are this year. I don't know where the scarlet runner beans will go, but I do know the zucchetta has to be kept well away from the exterior deer fence, because it's attempted to grow through it several times this year - not just vines but fruits - and the extractions have been... interesting.

On the opposite end of the size scale is the tiny-fruited plant we've been calling Mexican sour gherkin because that's how the seed was sold to me.

(photo by Heather Powers)

However, I learned a new name for it the other day, again from William Woys Weaver (a wonderful lecture he gave on heirloom vegetables at the Monticello Heritage Harvest Festival). The plant, which is related to cucumbers and similar in taste, is actually native to Mexico and Central America, and one of the names for it in Spanish is sandia di raton, or mouse melon. It does look very much like a miniature watermelon, the sort you might serve to mice. So that is what I'm calling it from now on.

It's a crispy, juicy snack direct off the vine, good in salads, good for pickling (I haven't tried that yet because I never end up with enough left over, but this is what I hear). The vines, with leaves just like those on a cucumber plant but tiny and less rough, are vigorous but not far-rambling, and don't seem to be affected by the wilt that devastated all the true cucumbers in the garden. I've never seen an insect on them except for bees on the flowers. They're attractive plants and next year we are growing them close to the path where we can show them off.

Read William Woys Weaver on mouse melons here.

Come early to the Harvest Festival on Saturday, October 3, and I'll try to have some mouse melons for you to snack on. Please do not bring your mice.