Thursday, September 30, 2010

Visit HGIC's Experts at the College's Open House this Saturday

Soothing sound--and cats v. birds

The soothing sound of rainfall on our sunroom roof relaxes me this morning as I sip a cup of joe and leaf through the Washington Post. Adrian Higgins writes about an inflammatory subject—cats v. birds—in the Local Living section. The rain has continued at a moderate rate since before dawn. It’s the kind of “drip irrigation” that we veggie gardeners love, especially when the lawn needs mowing. To read Higgins, CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Veggies plus flowers--always!

I don’t think “vegetable garden” without also thinking “flowers.” I suspect that’s because when I was a kid, just about every gardener planted some flowers in the family veggie garden.

Carl and Mary Rau, our next-door neighbors in the 1940s in Alloway, New Jersey, always bordered their veggie garden with zinnias. My Uncle Jim and Aunt Gladys Bullion sometimes planted zinnias to complement the bearded irises that shared their Silver Spring, Maryland, veggie garden.

I guess I’m just programmed by history to plant flowers when I plant veggies. I do it for their beauty. This year two have done well.

Between our green beans—which produced poorly this year, most likely because of brown marmorated stink bug damage—and our garage tower three Titan sunflower plants (Helianthus annuus). The packet from Seed Savers Exchange, which sells heirloom veggie and flower seeds, describes Titan as “one of the tallest-growing, big-headed and largest-seeded varieties available.”

Tallest? I won’t quibble. The packet says they grow up to 12-feet tall. Mine are 10-feet, protected by the side of the garage against wind and probably from some rainfall too.

Big-headed? Two of the three are big-headed, with heads of more than 12”, but still short of the predicted 18” to 24”. Again, I suspect inadequate rainfall in their protected location limited growth. Besides, one big head at this address is more than sufficient.

Largest-seeded? Today I cut the two large heads and took them into the garage to dry before marauding squirrels devour these winter treats for local feathered seedavores. The seeds are large, but clearly short of being “largest.” And when I cut away the huge leaves from around the heads, scores of brown marmorated stink bugs scurried from their hiding places.

And the third sunflower? It is a few inches taller than the other two. Instead of one huge flower, it has more than 20 late-blooming small flowers, which, obviously won’t turn into large seed heads. I believe the packet explains the oddity: “Sunflowers will cross-pollinate and must be separated by ½ mile to ensure pure seed.” Oops, one of the three plants came from a cross-pollinated seed—or perhaps from a stray seed in the seed-packaging room.

But, frankly, I’ve enjoyed the oddity more than the two real Titans. The two huge seed heads flowered and then bowed toward the ground, dull and petal less, concentrating, I assume, on maturing their seeds. The third plant, by contrast, with its six-inch flowers has added early-fall delight to our garden—and has attracted scores of skippers and other butterflies and pollinators scouting late-season nectar.

The second flower I’ve enjoyed for several years is Amish cockscomb (Celosia cristata), also from Seed Savers Exchange. Explorers introduced this leafy, red-combed tropical native to Europe in the 1570s from, most likely, Africa, but perhaps from India, Indonesia, or North or South America. Some explorer didn’t keep good notes.

I imagined the cockscomb would be deer-resistant so planted three seedlings outside our fence. My imagination was wrong. Our bambit herds stripped the plants of leaves just as they began to form blooms, but the plants releafed and grew combs, though of reduced size.

About two weeks ago I took my pruners and cut off several stems topped with red combs, stripped off the leaves, tied the stems together to form a small bouquet, and hung it in the garage to dry upside down to keep the stems straight, just as our ancestors did two, three, or four hundred years ago when they wanted to preserve some summer cheer for wintry days. As I tied the combs together, I noticed scores of tiny black seeds already dropping.

I handled the dry bouquet gently today when I carried it inside to put on my desk. I should have done my collecting two weeks earlier, but, really, what’s two weeks when the flower’s been a garden favorite for centuries?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Pumpkin pancakes and oven pumpkin puree

It’s not from me but from my last edition of my Mens Health magazine. I would like to share with you these pumpkin recipes.

Note from me:
  • If you use a Jack-O-Lantern-style pumpkin for your puree, you will need to shorten the time in the oven.
  • Because of their water content, if you use a Jack-O-Lantern style pumpkins in a soup or pancakes recipe, keep an eye on how thick do you want your mix.
  • For use as pie filling, a Jack-O-Lantern-style pumpkin, once in puree, will probably need to thicken the pulp by simmering and adding more or less sugar to taste.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Seed Saving 101

For me, that is!  Actually I might be up to 202 by now, since I've been saving "easy" seeds for some time, the sort that dry on the plant and just need to be separated from pod or husk or stem.  This includes beans, most herbs and many flowers.  Only a bit more difficult are vegetables such as peppers that have to be cut open at ripe stage, whereupon the seeds can be easily removed and left to dry for a week or two.

Then there are veggies whose seeds cling to a pulpy interior:  tomatoes are the usual example, but naturally I am going to show you mouse melons.  I found the instructions in William Woys Weaver's article in "Mother Earth News":

If you want to save seed, choose the ripest fruits. More likely than not, these will be the little melons that have dropped to the ground — this seems to be a signal from the plant that they are ripe. Take the melons indoors and let them stand a week or two on a tray to further ripen. Then cut them open and scoop out the seeds. Put the seed mass in a jar of water, and let this ferment for at least five days (this kills any virus that might be on the seed). Once a thick layer of scum has formed and the best seeds have dropped to the bottom, remove the scum layer and rinse the remaining mixture in a strainer. Then spread the seeds to dry on a screen in a cool, well-ventilated room and let them remain there for at least two weeks. The seed is dry enough to store in an airtight jar when the individual seeds snap when broken.

This is good in theory.  I didn't get a layer of scum and in fact had to manually separate the seed from the pulp that didn't dissolve.  But the seeds are now drying (on a dish, not a screen, since these seeds are too tiny for the screens I have available; just do not dry seeds on paper towels or cloth since they will stick) and I hope they will be ready for storage soon enough.

Here's the process:

Separating seeds from fruit
Seeds and pulp in jar with water
Sorting out seeds for drying
Why save seeds to begin with?  You can do it to save money, or to save open-pollinated varieties that you want to preserve.  Anyone can do this!  I strongly suggest getting a book like Suzanne Ashworth's Seed to Seed to provide detailed instructions (she does not list mouse melons, hence the WWW article coming to my rescue).  There are many seed savers out there, both amateur and professional; many belong to Seed Savers Exchange, which since 1975 has transformed the landscape of gardening and brought back hundreds of nearly-lost varieties.

I recently heard Rosalind Creasy lecturing on heirloom vegetables and flowers, and one thing she said intrigued me: that though there's still a need for gardeners to participate in saving old open-pollinated varieties, Seed Savers Exchange has worked so well that we can breathe a sigh of relief about not losing them.  She added that what's now in jeopardy are older hybrid varieties, which are the province of professionals in seed companies since they are "reborn" from designated parents in each new generation.  If you save seeds from hybrid varieties and replant, you may get a similar result or something very different; this is in the Don't Try This At Home category, although it can be interesting.

You can make your own accidental hybrids by saving seeds from plants of the same species but different varieties that have been allowed to pollinate each other and cross.  You may have seen this happen in your own garden or compost pile:  the Mystery Squash is a prime example.  Unfortunately they don't always taste good.  Seed saving books tell you what distance is required between varieties to keep the seed pure; some people keep insects out by covering the plants, and hand-pollinate.  I'm not ready to go there, but I am hoping my Varengata hot peppers on the deck were far enough from the sweet bananas in the garden (I'll let you know next year when I plant the saved seed).

Friday, September 24, 2010

News about stink bugs

Washington Post online this afternoon published an article on the effect of stink bugs on both home owners and gardeners/farmers. To read it, CLICK HERE.

Added by Erica:  Also see this news video about stink bugs' effect on one Montgomery County farm, an updated fact sheet from University of Maryland Extension, and a press release from the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Some good news from Dr. Mike Raupp: he has been observing predation on brown marmorated stink bugs by wheel bugs, spiders and praying mantids.  Check out his site and search under previous Bug of the Week issues to ID these useful predators so you can give them pep talks!

Added by Bob: Here's the hopeful paragraph from the Post article, which, by the way, appears on the front page of the Saturday print edition: "At a USDA lab in Newark, Del., scientists have quarantined tiny parasitic wasps--collected from China and Korea, where they are the bugs' natural predators--to determine whether the wasps can be used against the stink bugs without harming other species here. The wasps attack the eggs of the stink bugs. That research is likely to take two more years."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Pumpkin Time

Halloween is a big deal in our house so having just one pumpkin for carving and display just won't cut it. This year my 2 plants ('Howden' and ''Connecticut Field') produced 12 pumpkins! I planted seeds the third week in June and fruits were ready to harvest at least two weeks earlier than normal. So what to do? 

I like to store my pumpkins on the floor of my basement. The temperature is about 68 degrees F. and the humidity is fairly high even though I have a de-humidifier. I space them out a bit and if I'm really ambitious I place them on a wooden pallet. Some gardeners wipe down their stored pumpkins with a weak bleach solution to kill surface pathogens.
After cutting the last pumpkin I pulled up the vines and saw signs that squash vine borers had visited- lots of frass and chewed stem tissue. I observed an adult borer flying around my zucchini plants in late July and assumed it was the second generation of this pest this year. I wonder if the injury in the photo was from second generation borers?

I was surprised that the plants grew and produced so well with no obvious signs of wilt. My zucchini plants (planted June 20) were also infested but kept fruiting through the summer. Just goes to show that healthy plants can sometimes withstand borer feeding.

Veggies & herbs as "flowers"?

Some people think only “flowers” when they think “vase.” But Barbara Damrosch, in her “A Cook’s Column” in the Local Living section of today’s Washington Post, suggests you add a few veggies and herbs for excitement and color as the flower season wanes. CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What I learned in 2010

The 2010 gardening season is drawing to a close, although there's still a lot of it left for those of us growing fall veggies.  But it's a good time to pause and take stock, as we officially slide from summer into autumn (on a pretty hot day with a small chance of rain).  The garden, and my gardening friends, teach me new things every year.  Here's a little of what I learned in 2010.

1) You can have too much Swiss chard.

2) Don't plant mint.  Just don't.  Okay, plant a little.  Whoops!

3) Rhubarb travels.  I'm quite sure that two years ago our demo garden rhubarb patch wasn't blocking access to the gate to the compost pile, but since then it's snuck over there.  We had to dig up the plants and move them; I hope they survive.  Probably we should have moved the gate instead.

4) Don't plant tomatoes and peppers in the shade.  This should be a no-brainer, but we managed to do it at the demo garden this year, forgetting how tall Jerusalem artichoke and fennel get.  Fennel is a no-no in most companion planting applications anyway.

5) Cattle panels make fantastic low-cost arbors, and mouse melons will in fact cover them.  Hurray!

6) On the other hand, mouse melons do not grow well in pots.  Though it would have been a good idea to fertilize them more often.

7) Peanuts do grow in pots!  Or at least it appears that way; I haven't dug them up yet.

8) Summer squash started as late as early July grows quickly, is as overbearing as usual, and avoids vine borer attacks.  Thanks for the tip, Bob!  Also, Donna was right: round zucchini rocks, even though I don't juggle.

9) By extension, staggered planting is a great way to handle pest problems with squash, cucumbers, and some other quick-growing crops.  I should just forget about using the counter in the laundry room for folding laundry, and reserve it for continual production of new transplants, including basil, borage (which poops out just when I would like it to really shine), and some flowers.  I would use my overcrowded deck for this purpose if it weren't for the squirrels that dig up and eat seedlings.

10) Also start fall transplants inside.  Especially spinach.  I despair at getting it to germinate outside in August with no rain.

11) Brassica family plants grow well in the spring if we get a long enough stretch of cool weather, and they do fantastically in the fall once it really is fall, but August, September and early October are flummoxing me.  I am seriously considering restricting my fall plantings to things harlequin bugs don't like.  Wish I could do the same for stink bugs, but it appears there is nothing they don't like.  They are the anti-Tigger, the anti-Mikey.

12) Speaking of spinach, as I did two items ago, summer spinach alternatives are very worth planting.  Except for beetberry/strawberry spinach.  The berries have no taste and I never ate a leaf since it died prematurely.

13) I failed utterly at growing beans while other people managed despite the heat.  Variety selection?  Not enough water?

14) Great soil solves a lot of problems, but we would have done better in general with more regular watering.  Next year we WILL install a good drip irrigation system with a TIMER.

15) Beneficial insect-attracting flowers are also essential, but so is regular monitoring of insects that want to eat your veggies.  Once a week is far from enough.  Next year, demo garden IPM scout team?  Bad Bugs Brigade?

16) My name is Erica and I am a seedaholic.  Really, I cannot resist acquiring new seeds, especially free or low-cost ones.  Luckily I have a large garden to play with them in, but seriously:  just because Monticello is selling off 2009 seeds for 50¢ a packet does not mean I need Queen Anne's Pocket Melon.  You can't eat them and the demo gardeners really don't smell that bad.

17) Garden bloggers rule!!

The above is a subliminal hint telling you to plant mouse melons in 2011.  But in any case: time to start planning for another great (hopefully much better) year!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Happy Harvest 2010!

Happy Harvest, Gardeners!

As days shorten, temperatures plummet, and many of our veggies sign off for 2010, I wanted to send you a Happy Harvest greeting card, but Hallmark and American Greetings haven’t invented those yet, at least that I have seen.

But let’s not permit the absence of a card stifle a chance to party. Let’s observe an astronomical coincidence that happens only every 19 years—the autumnal equinox, when summer ends and fall begins, just after 11 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on September 22—and the full harvest moon a few hours later.

The last time the two happened so closely was 1991. The next time we’ll have a chance to celebrate the coincidence will be 2029, and I cannot guarantee I’ll remember to send out a reminder then.

So, gardeners, tomorrow night is party time. Take your love by the hand and go outside and enjoy the harvest moon. Be brave and startle your neighbors with a subtle howl or two—or at least attempt to sing this smash hit of 1908:

Oh, shine on, shine on, harvest moon
Up in the sky;
I ain't had no lovin'
Since April, January, June or July.
Snow time ain't no time to stay
Outdoors and spoon;
So shine on, shine on, harvest moon,
For me and my gal.

Enjoy the beautiful harvest moon—and the spooning, if you’re old enough to know what that is.

Happy Harvest 2010!

Shine on, shine on, harvest moon!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Ghosts in the garden? No, row covers!

Perhaps for the upcoming Harvest Festival at the Agricultural History Farm Park we should tie into another October theme and call ourselves "A Garden of Ghosts"?  Please do visit if you are in Montgomery County on October 2 and want to tour our demo garden as well as having lots of fun around the park, but if you want to know what all the white things are, read on.

Late August and early September, as the nighttime temperatures drop and the soil cools, are ideal for putting in transplants of fall plants such as broccoli, cabbage, kale, and Asian greens.  The problem is, this period is also prime feeding time for harlequin bugs, as well as caterpillars that feed on Brassica family plants.  One solution that does not involve spraying is to cover the transplants with floating row cover.  You can simply drape the fabric over the plants, which will push it up as they grow, and hold it down on the edges with rocks, soil, or pins.  But it's better to hold up the row cover with something that will keep the cloth taut and out of direct contact with the leaves.

Next year I'll go with 9-gauge wire bent into hoops, as recommended by Jon Traunfeld.  I have been using bamboo hoops, which are nice-looking but tend to break after several uses.  And we have so many short rows of fall plants going in that our remaining supply of hoops fell short.  MG Barbara Dunn to the rescue!  She designed a system that will work until the plants get too large (at which time we hope the harlequins will be hibernating!).

Above is row cover stretched over a hoop made of hardware cloth, which Barbara calls "the hairnet."  Below, Barbara and Margaret use a tomato cage on its side as a row cover support.  These improvisations allowed us to get the plants in on time and saved me a trip to Home Depot.

Last I checked the plants were still surviving under their white sheets and hadn't become ghosts yet themselves.  Light and water go through the fabric just fine - of course it would help if we had more rain!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

How to harvest tomato seeds

Want to learn how to save tomato seeds for next year? Link on over to Barbara Damrosch’s “A Cook’s Garden” column in the Local Living section of today’s Washington Post.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sexism in the asparagus patch

I wanted to show you a photo of stink bugs sucking on my asparagus berries, but I didn't get around to taking it in time, and now the bugs are not cooperating (they are all trying to get into my house instead).  So you get unmolested asparagus berries, with possible stink bug damage on berry at top.

But why berries on the asparagus to begin with?  (Don't eat them, by the way; they are mildly poisonous to humans.)  Asparagus is dioecious, producing separate male and female plants.  The female plants are less productive (making fewer spears) because some of their energy goes into seed production, by means of these berries.  Another problem with female plants is berries dropping and producing new plants, both in the asparagus bed (causing crowding) and outside (necessitating weeding or transplanting).  If you have extra space and are willing to transplant, this can be a bonus.

"All-male" hybrids have been developed to address this issue; if you plant these, you get a more vigorous yield.  What's interesting, though, is that I chose all-male hybrids for both my home garden and the demo garden, and yet I can still take photos of female plant berries.  A skim of multiple extension webpages on asparagus finally brought me to an article from Virginia Tech by a North Carolina extension agent that admits "all-male" means about 93% male, the rest of the plants female.  The demo garden plants are about 80% male; my bed at home, however, is about 60% female.  Something is amiss.

It's all growing very well, however, so I am not complaining.  Whether you choose an all-male hybrid that may turn out to be sexually confused, or an heirloom variety that is half-male, half-female in distribution, you can still have a vigorous planting if you prepare the soil well.  Now is a good time to start thinking about that, if you plan to make the commitment to asparagus next spring.  (It is a commitment: a well-planted asparagus bed can supply you (or your successors on that land) for 20 years.)  You can find planting advice at a number of extension sources including our own Grow It Eat It.  Manure, compost, or other nutritious organic materials are a must.

Asparagus flowers, pollinated by bee, back in May:
Asparagus berries in green stage (photo by Patrick Smith):

Asparagus beds can be an aesthetic component of your garden; the ferns are attractive and make a good tall backdrop.  (I suspect deer will eat the spring spears, though, if you don't fence them.)  Mine started browning earlier than usual this dry year, in late summer.  There is controversy in the horticultural world about whether to cut down the ferns after frost (preventing berry drop and protecting against disease) or leave them standing until spring (providing natural mulch for crowns and early spear growth).  I think this year I will cut them down.  For one thing, it helps in getting out the weeds hiding in the center of the bed.  (At home, I have an elderberry sucker growing there, offspring of a shrub cut down over a year ago.)

You don't need a huge space to grow asparagus; 10-12 plants will yield a nice supplement to your spring meals starting in the second or third year (do not cut in the first year).  You can grow those plants in about 30-40 square feet.  Asparagus can be started from seed, but crowns yield much faster and are more reliable (supposedly) for those all-male hybrids.  Maybe mine just don't want to hang out only with the guys?

Monday, September 13, 2010

"... and the low 50s north and west"

I’ve started paying attention to weather forecasts when they predict temperatures in the low 50s. The early-morning temperature at our house was 53.1°F. Friday and 51.2° Saturday when I checked our digital thermometer. After the oppressively hot summer of 2010, the cooler September temperatures suit me just fine. And my fall veggies—lettuce, beets, chard, and turnips--are growing beautifully.

But night-time temperatures in the low 50s aren’t good for my favorite garden fruit—tomatoes. You’ve heard repeatedly that you should store your tomatoes on your kitchen counter and not in your refrigerator. The reason is that the temperature in your refrigerator is about 36°, and tomatoes begin to turn mealy when the temperature dips below 55°, or some say, 50°.

An Internet posting headlined “Tomato Secrets Unveiled” explains, “Tomatoes are greatly affected by temperature, even during the growing process. They originally came from the warm western coast of South America and don’t respond well to temperatures below 50°. Cool temperatures can change a tomato’s composition, converting its natural sugar into starch and resulting in a tasteless, mealy tomato. For this reason, never refrigerate a tomato. The cold environment causes the water in the tomato to expand, ruining the texture.”

So however much my fall veggies and I are enjoying cooler temperatures, I have to remember that at some point my tomatoes—especially large-red slicers—will begin to suffer in quality. I’ve got to be prepared to pick some unripe tomatoes and to store them in our garage.

In Chapter 17, “Vegetables,” of the University of Maryland Master Gardener Handbook, Jon Traunfeld counsels about tomato storage: “Don’t refrigerate tomatoes. Allow them to ripen fully indoors at room temperature. Green tomatoes may be picked before the first killing frost and stored in a medium cool (50° - 70° F), moist (90% RH) conditions; 1 to 3 weeks. When desired, ripen fruits at 70° F.”

My experience is that stored tomatoes ripen best if they’re near maturity in size and have some “color” before picked—either a slight hint of pink or at least pre-pink white. One reference suggests you leave a half-inch or so of the tomato’s stem on the tomato when you clip it, but I haven’t met a gardener yet who does that.

In coming weeks, as garden temperatures gradually decrease, I’ll expect the few remaining “big ones” to begin to get mealy. And when frost threatens, I’ll pick whatever the stink bugs have spared and bring them into our garage to extend Tomato Season 2010 for a few more weeks.

If you have a tip on fall tomato storage to share, please post a Comment.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Green with sea kale envy

I woke up to hear it raining last night and breathed a huge sigh of relief.  My, did we need that rain!  Gardeners usually celebrate rainy days, and in the process tick a lot of people off who have been cheated of picnics and sporting events, but there comes a point when plants just need more water than they can get with any irrigation system.  Everything was looking a mite crisp out there, and now we might just get by for a while.

I have to say, however, that I'm glad it didn't rain yesterday, since I spent the day at Monticello enjoying their Heritage Harvest Festival.  More about that later when I have processed all the great talks I heard, but although I skipped veggie gardener Pat Brodowski's wonderful garden tour this year, I did wander about and look at (and photograph) the plants they're growing in tribute to Thomas Jefferson's obsession with acquiring the new and fascinating in horticulture, and bringing the best of food to his table.

The picture above is of a cucuzzi squash (really an edible gourd): at least I'm 97% sure that's what it is and told a bunch of confused visitors so (the perils of wearing a Grow It Eat It hat and looking like you know what you're talking about).  The presumed cucuzzis were at the end of a sort of allee of hyacinth beans, a beautiful effect.

Everything was laid out well, and intelligently chosen, and healthy despite the nasty summer... well, they do have staff, though thank history not the kind of staff Jefferson had working his garden.  I was particularly jealous of the sea kale.
Sea kale (Crambe maritima) is a perennial member of the Brassica family that grows wild on the northwestern coasts of Europe.  Traditionally its new spring shoots are blanched by covering with beach shingle or with the kind of pot you see in the photo, and eaten like asparagus.  I really want to grow it, and I tried this year, but this is what my plants looked like just before I pulled them out in early September.

They were doing fine (okay, anyway) until I inadvisedly took the row covers off, and then the harlequin bugs descended and destroyed.  The Monticello garden had harlequins; they were eating horseradish and ignoring the sea kale and the newly added fall cabbages.  At our demo garden they enjoy horseradish too (in fact they covered the plants so thoroughly we had to cut off all the leaves) but they do not leave the other plants alone.  We've had to encase every fall brassica we have in row cover (will show you that in another post).  Maybe I need to plant a lot more horseradish?

I guess I'm destined to attempt sea kale over and over, learning a new lesson each time (which would be fine with most veggie garden annuals but is frustrating with a perennial grown from expensive seeds).  I did learn how to germinate it this year, which I totally failed at last year.  The secret is to remove or at least make a hole in the corky outer shell of the seed.  Then it sprouts as easily as any other cabbage family plant, though it grows more slowly.

Perhaps next year I will manage to protect the plants from insects, and then forget to mulch them enough to survive the winter - as long as it's a new mistake!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Don't miss the 2010 veggie season wrap-up

Don’t miss “Vegetable Garden Wrap-up: 2010 Season Ends on a Stinking Note” at the Grow It Eat It website. The report includes what’s happening in the battle with the brown marmorated stink bugs, which have caused major grief to veggie and fruit gardeners and to commercial agriculture. To go to that site, CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Why not grow miracle mulch?

What fixes nitrogen in your garden soil, recycles nutrients and adds organic matter, reduces compaction and erosion, and turns into thick mulch, which in turn helps suppress weeds, reduces water evaporation, acts as a slow-release fertilizer, and suppresses some pathogens and pests?

Barbara Billek of Columbia, who gardens at Westside Community Garden of Columbia Gardeners, Inc., says the answer is hairy vetch. No, hairy vetch isn’t a guy you met at the local barber shop. It’s an annual winter legume that serves both as a cover crop and mulch.

“I was searching online for a cover crop that would protect my garden soil over winter,” Barbara explained. “I ended up on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website and an Agricultural Research Service brochure entitled ‘Sustainable Production of Fresh-Market Tomatoes and Other Vegetables with Cover Crop Mulches,’ which is now called Farmers’ Bulletin 2280.”

Barbara read the bulletin and, convinced hairy vetch was the ground cover she wanted to use in her garden, began growing it two winters ago. She follows the recommendations in the brochure.

“You can’t buy hairy vetch seed just anywhere,” Barbara pointed out. “I found it at the Southern States store in Ellicott City. They asked how much I wanted, and off the top of my head I said, ‘One pound,’” she laughed. “They went into the back of the store somewhere with a scoop and returned with a bag of hairy vetch seed. One ounce would have been more than enough for my small garden.”

Barbara said the optimum time for sowing hairy vetch in Maryland is mid-September, when many garden vegetables have already stopped producing. “The first year you have to use a special inoculent with the seed. The inoculent consists of rhizobium microorganisms that improve growth of the hairy vetch and remain active in the soil to benefit future crops,” she explained. “Last year I sowed it late—October 9 in one bed and October 22 in another. I lucked out because we had a warm autumn and the vetch still grew well.”

“Seedlings emerge about a week after I sow the seed,” Barbara said. “By winter they form a 5- to 6-inch mat that protects the soil from erosion. During the coldest part of winter, the plants seem to die, but they start growing again when temperatures rise in spring. By early May, the individual plants are up to 3-feet long and create quite a heap of prostrate, green growth.”

“Just before the vetch blooms in mid-May and when it has added most nitrogen to my garden soil,” she continued, “I take my shears and cut it all off at ground level and just let it lie there. It slowly decomposes and turns into the best imaginable mulch. I just pull it to the sides of my raised bed and plant my tomatoes. Then I pull the mulch back around the tomato plants and am pretty much done weeding for the summer.”

Barbara pointed out a bulletin chart indicating hairy vetch adds micronutrients to the soil in addition to the important nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Per acre the vetch adds about 125 pounds of nitrogen, 18 pounds of phosphorus, and 132 pounds of potassium.

“My tomato bed is only about 60 square feet,” she explained. “I’ve never taken the time to figure out how much of those elements the vetch adds to my garden each year.”

If you plant a ground cover, please post a Comment describing its pluses and minutes—how it works for you.

To access Farmers’ Bulletin 2280, CLICK HERE.

Cocktails from the garden

I present to you the Mouse Melon Martini:

Martini recipe of your choice with a pickled mouse melon!  I didn't make it or drink it (can't touch the stuff any longer: migraines) but I laughed.

Those of you who do indulge, what cocktails or other drinks have you come up with that involve produce from the garden?  I've had Pimm's Cup, mint juleps, and the claret cup recipe posted earlier, but that's about it for veggies or herbs I picked myself.  (Dandelion and elderflower wines, too, but you can't make those on an evening's whim.)

Here's a post from Grub Street New York about vegetable cocktails.

Give me your ideas in the comments!  Nonalcoholic drinks very welcome too.  I'm playing with a newly acquired juicer so will be experimenting with combos that work well with mixers.

Surely we deserve a nice drink after putting up with the weather this summer!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Bugs that stink

Did you have stink bugs in your house last winter?  How about in your garden this summer?  We have two native stink bugs (brown and green) that have been a minor problem for a while, and they both had a very good year, but what you've probably been seeing in greater numbers is the relatively new interloper, the brown marmorated stink bug.  They are sucking the life out of my tomatoes and I have also seen them on peppers, corn and beans as well as a few other crops.  It was hard to tell what they were doing on the corn to begin with -- just hanging around having a stink bug party, maybe -- but now, having harvested some corn that hosted those parties, I think I can see damage to individual kernels that might have been made right through the husk.

Visit the Grow It Eat It main website for a synopsis of pest and disease problems affecting the food garden this summer, including lots of information on stink bugs.  Also check out the Current Plant and Pest Problems page for details on other common food garden pests.  I think I've had them all this year!

Pests and diseases can be disheartening and make you want to give up on food growing, especially when you lose an entire crop.  But I've found that the more you know about a pest or disease, the more you end up searching for solutions instead of throwing in the trowel.  When a pest like the brown marmorated stink bug starts devastating farms and gardens, a lot of attention in the agricultural and scientific communities goes toward combating it, including with organic methods.  Let's hope that in a few years we'll know the best ways to fight these pests and won't have to watch them having parties on our food!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Tomato trial: Baxter's Bush Cherry

One of my trial tomatoes this year is Baxter’s Bush Cherry, the seed for which I picked off a Burpee seed rack last winter at Wal-Mart. I was attracted by the packet description that said this cherry tomato was extra early, determinate, with small, sweet fruits. The back of the packet indicated fruit would begin maturing 72 days after transplanting.

I transplanted two seedlings into our garden on May 30. I picked a ripe Baxter’s Bush Cherry tomato about 55 days later. At 64 days I was picking handfuls each day and then more than 80 in one day.

Extra early? Not really. From two or three plants of each variety, I had already picked more than a colander of Sungolds, a score or more of Juliets, 10 Big Beefs, some Yellow Plums, and four or five large Brandywines.

Curious about the extra-early claim, I checked the Burpee website. It seems to say Baxter’s Bush Cherry is early compared to other open-pollinated cherry tomatoes, but in the final summary of characteristics, the site describes this cherry as “mid-season.” Ok, I’ll go with a combo: “early mid-season.”

Determinate? The plants have vigor but topped out at about four feet. For gardeners who struggle with jungle-growth of Sweet 100s or Sungolds or have limited space, Baxter’s Bush Cherry might be a welcome relief.

Fruit hangs in attractive bunches. The round fruits are about 1.25”on average, with about a quarter measuring 1.5”. Burpee describes them by weight: 1 ounce. The fruit hasn’t split or cracked like Sweet 100 and Sungold have after rains.

I would not describe the fruit as sweet in the sense that Sweet 100s or Sungolds are, but Baxter’s Bush Cherry has a fresh, slightly sweet, tomato taste—a good snacker or muncher, to my way of thinking, for anyone not wanting to feel guilty about eating “sweets.”

The Burpee website says Baxter’s Bush Cherry has “remarkable weather tolerance” and “fruit set tolerance,” which is evidenced by my two plants this super-hot summer. My Brandywines, Big Beefs, and Biltmores haven’t set new fruit for weeks now, and I see small Baxter’s Bush Cherries still growing.

Burpee also claims Baxter’s Bush Cherry doesn’t need staking or caging. That I cannot verify because my narrow beds require that I stake all of my tomato plants. Not to stake would mean sprawl and crawl—for me, if not the plants, and I’m a generation beyond crawling to pick cherry tomatoes.

Organic gardeners will be pleased. This Burpee seed is “100% Certified Organic.”

Bottom line: I’m impressed by Baxter’s Bush Cherry tomato. If you want a munchable cherry and have a space for only one or two small plants that will continue setting fruit throughout the summer, consider trying Baxter’s Bush Cherry tomato.

If you tried a new tomato variety this year, please post a Comment telling us how it worked out for you.

Recommendations for winter greens

In her “A Cook’s Garden” column in the Local Living Section of today’s Washington Post, Barbara Damrosch gives her recommendations for winter greens: lettuce, spinach, arugula, tatsoi, mache, and claytonia. For good measure, in the last paragraph she adds another ten. CLICK HERE to read her column.

I see a Jack-O Lantern in my soup !

B’en quoi ! A pumpkin is a close relative to the squash and gourd with 3 species with many varieties available.

Cucurbita moschata is the species for the butternut squash and the pumpkins for processing. Cucurbita pepo is the species for the summer squash and the field pumpkins. Cucurbita maxima is home of the buttercup squash and the giant pumpkins.

A pumpkin exists in many colors like, for example, many shades of orange, green, red or white. They can weigh between 2 and 100 lbs and with special care, go over 1000 lbs.

Why did Donna and I grow pumpkins? It’s for the sport, because we got free transplants this year, and because we have a place to put them.

Because the seeds germinated early (not our fault!), we began to harvest pumpkins at the end of July. We now havested 5 field pumpkins and numbers 6, 7 and 8 are on their way. As seen on the picture – pumpkin #6, the vine has a lot of room to grow around in our area reserved for our black raspberry plants. The picture shows only one vine. On the left end of the vine, the squash vine borers were happy this summer but the plant survived by growing shallow roots along the length of the vine.

Psst! Don’t look for raspberry plants, they will be back next year.

A “field pumpkin” has less flesh with more water content and is less sweet than a “pie pumpkin”. Yes, you can a make a pie with a Jack-O-Lantern; you just need to thicken the pulp by simmering and by using more sugar. You can can a pumpkin, too. This is how to do it according to University Illinois extension.
Pumpkin must be processed in a pressure canner. Wash pumpkin remove seeds, cut into large pieces and peel. Cut into 1-inch cubes. Add to a saucepan of boiling water, boil 2 minutes. Caution: Do not mash or puree for canning. Pack hot cubes into hot jars, leaving 1-inch head space. Fill jars to 1-inch from the top with boiling hot cooking liquid. Remove air bubbles. Wipe jar rims. Adjust lids and process.
Process in a Dial Gauge Pressure Canner at 11 pounds pressure or in a Weighted Gauge Pressure Canner at 10 pounds pressure. Pints -- 55 minutes and quarts 90 minutes.

And what about the soup?

It was easy to do. I used a small pumpkin – thanks squash vine borers- that gave me about 5 cups of flesh.

I added a carrot and a potato, and cooked it all in a Dutch oven with 1 cup of water for 10 minutes. I then added an onion, garlic and one can of chicken broth, and cooked it for another 5 minutes. An immersion blender transformed it into puree, after which I added seasoning and simmered a few minutes more. VoilĂ !

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Mouse Melon Soup

Perhaps none of you reading this have yet had the problem of too many mouse melons, but if you grow them, you very well may (see my previous post on mouse melons for description of this vigorous plant).  I recently tried to find a way to deal with this harvest:

(about 4 cups, 1.5 pounds) and thought about a cucumber-yogurt cold soup I'd had recently at a local restaurant.  I looked through several favorite cookbooks with recipes, and came up with a combination of ideas.  On reconsideration, I'd like to try again with a recipe that doesn't involve cooking (just pureeing ingredients) but my first attempt was as follows.

Mouse Melon Soup

4 cups mouse melons
4 shallots or a small onion, chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs (see note below)
2 tbsp butter
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup plain yogurt

Cut the mouse melons in half lengthwise.  This is tedious and probably unnecessary, but I did it and that allows me to show you what they look like inside.

As you can see, no point at all in trying to seed them.

Melt the butter in a saucepan (large enough for the ingredients) and cook the chopped shallots or onion until tender.  Add the broth and bring to a simmer.  Add the mouse melons (except for a few you might want to reserve for garnishes), and cook about 3 minutes.  Add the herbs and cook another 2 minutes.  Remove from heat and let cool for 5-10 minutes, then puree by whatever means you prefer.  (If you use a blender, do it in batches.)  Chill the pureed mixture in the fridge for a few hours.  Just prior to serving, adjust seasonings (you may need to add salt, pepper, vinegar to taste) and mix in yogurt until smooth.  Serve, with garnishes if desired.  Serves 6-8 (I have leftovers).

I do seem to keep coming up with olive green soups.

Notes:  If you don't have mouse melons (as some people may not), you could use two large cucumbers, seeds scooped out and probably skinned, chopped roughly.

For herbs I used a combination of basil, mint and tarragon.  I think the basil was too strong and would suggest not using it or using only a leaf or two; same with tarragon.  Mint and/or dill would work better.  Fennel would be interesting in small quantities.

Mouse melons are a bit more sour than cucumbers, so the soup will not taste exactly like the expected cucumber-yogurt soup.  I like the taste but I'm going to keep fiddling with proportions and see what happens.  If anyone else out there has a bumper crop of mouse melons and would like to experiment as well, I'd be very happy to hear your results and suggestions.

On the other hand, it seems a shame to pulverize these cute little veggies, at least prior to putting them in your mouth.  They work well in salads; here's a link to an article on mouse melons with a salad recipe, by William Woys Weaver.  (Also includes seed saving instructions, for which I am very grateful.)

Deer - smarter than we give them credit for!

Last Tuesday mid morning, I saw 2 deer inching their way toward my garden. Now, I knew that the solar powered electric fence I installed last year has been incredible at keeping deer away. My neighbor, Nancy, jokingly claims to see deer limping as they exit my yard and enter hers. But I never actually saw it in action until now. But more than getting a lesson in how the fence works, I got a lesson in how Mother Nature works.
Mother and baby were eating persimmons that had fallen on the ground, inching their way closer to the garden. The fawn was in the lead. Mother was watching, knowingly, the whole time.I was so excited at the prospect of getting a shot of this, that I didn't have the chance to change the camera setting to video. The mother watched calmly as the baby got a lesson in where NOT to go for a meal!
The quality of the images aren't great, but I think they get the point across. Deer don't need to be attracted to the fence with a peanut butter bait. Nor do you need to spray repellent around the perimeter. And, clearly they can see where their feeding space ends and mine begins.
The baby jumped when it touched the fence but didn't high-tail it out of there. Did the mother knowingly set up her baby to learn this lesson? It certainly looks like she did. The 2 deer calmly and slowly continued looking for food in the grass while moving on to the next yard and on to the cover of the woods beyond. Score a point for mothers being nature's first teacher and another point for Ria's solar powered electric fence!