Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tomato Patch: Learning by picking at “breaker stage”

"Breaker stage" tomatoes when picked
My “breaker stage” tomato-picking experiment is progressing nicely and I’m learning as I go. I picked four less-than-ripe tomatoes last Monday (July 25) just before arrival of showers that I thought might cause the fruit to split. I took the tomatoes inside and let them continue ripening on our kitchen counter until Friday (July 29). 
Photo 1 shows the four tomatoes when I picked them on July 25. Back row: Brandywine Red, Brandywine (Sudduth’s Strain), and Virginia Sweets. Front row: Big Mama and a common cherry tomato, Sungold. I added the Sungold to give an idea of the comparative sizes of the fruit. The Sungold within a day disappeared in a sudden gnashing of my teeth, and the Big Mama surrendered peacefully to a slicing knife on Thursday evening when Ellen and I were making sandwiches.

"Breakers" four days later
The three biggest tomatoes slowly ripened for four days on our kitchen counter, where the temperature was approximately 78°F. Photo 2 shows them just before we sliced them for lunch on Friday (July 28), and Photo 3 shows slices just a few minutes later.

How did they taste? Did they have the exciting flavor of vine-ripened tomatoes—as my earlier posting suggested would be the case? Or were they “off flavor” or even as tasteless as the tomatoes we’re accustomed to bringing home from the supermarket?

I was particularly interested in seeing how the Brandywine (Sudduth’s Strain) and the Virginia Sweets, both heirlooms varieties, ripened inside. Over the years I’ve “lost” many of that pink Brandywine because I stubbornly let them hang on their vines while I waited for their color to intensify. I wanted a deep pink, I suppose—but the fruit often cracked and rotted before I decided to pick it. Conventional wisdom says heirloom tomatoes ripen internally before they appear ripe externally.

The Virginia Sweets is a new variety for me this year, and I didn’t really know what it would look like when ripe. Its seed packet describes mature fruit as “gold-red bicolors” and “golden yellow beefsteaks … colored with red stripes that turn into a ruby blush.” Just what would that look like out in the garden?

Sliced "breakers"
So cut and sample we did. All three tasted great. I’ve frequently grown Brandywine (Sudduth’s Stain), and Ellen and I both thought it was as mouth watering as one ripened on the vine. The Brandywine Red tasted nearly as good as the Sudduth’s Stain, but was “juicier” and not as solid as the Sudduth’s. The meat of the Virginia Sweets was mostly yellow, but it tasted more like a red tomato than a bland “low-acid” yellow.

However, I’ve learned a few things during this experiment.

First, I’ll pick tomatoes even earlier—when they’re just beginning to add color and before they are “nearly ripe” or show any signs of cracking or other problems. The Brandywine Red was almost too ripe by the time I sliced it. The Sudduth’s Brandywine had begun to crack on the fine, and the crack widened as it ripened in the kitchen, so I had to dispose of more of the “meat” that I wanted to eat.

Second, I will start slicing heirlooms, such as the Brandywines, before they look absolutely ripe on the outside. I’ve accepted the conventional wisdom that they are ripe inside before they look ripe.

When I was preparing to take a picture of the tomatoes, I happened to think that I’ve never weighed tomatoes. I grow them to eat, and eat them we do. But just to see how much they weighed, I got out a simple kitchen scale. Here are their approximate weights:

Sungold, not large enough to accurately weigh.

Big Mama, 5 ounces (140 g). (This is a small Big Mama according to the Burpee catalog description.)

Brandywine Red, 15 ounces (425 g).

Brandywine (Sudduth’s Strain), 1 lb 1 oz (480 g).

Virginia Sweets, 1 lb 9 oz (800 g). Yes, that is one large tomato, impressive even while hanging on the vine.

Have you picked tomatoes before they were fully ripe? If you have, please post a Comment about how picking at breaker stage works for you and how you think the ripened fruit tastes. Does it taste as good as vine-ripened fruit? And if you grow heirlooms, share a tip about how you tell when they’re ripe?

Grow it. Experiment. Eat it. Comment.

P.S. If you didn’t read my earlier posting about picking tomatoes at breaker stage and want more information, CLICK HERE.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Proud Mama announces the arrival of her......


YEAH! I have tried for several years to grow watermelons with no success. Yesterday, in addition to harvesting literally about 30 pounds of tomatoes, I went to check on my babies. There were four that were ready!!!! Hubby and I sampled some early this morning after letting it cool in the fridge over night and oh how sweet it is!!

Here's proud mama with her babies:

Here they are again:

Each one of those babies weighs a good 20 pounds! You should have seen my daughter and I struggling to carry these things to the car! It was definitely funny!

Here's the maters:

I kid you not when I say that each of those bags weighed as much as one of the watermelons! I was afraid that the plastic bag was going to break!

I'm so proud and feel so very blessed to have grown my very own watermelons! I think my Grandpa is up in Heaven smiling down on my harvest.

There are still about ten watermelons left in the garden that should be ready within the next week or two.

Now I'm going to figure out what to do with all those maters!

Until next time garden gals and guys....

Very Happy Gardening!!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Eastern Shore PAR Gardeners

When I get to the community vegetable garden at Victory Farm – arriving late and in 90-degree afternoon heat, my apologies again, ladies -- there are nonetheless still four women there watering, plucking a rare weed, picking a few peppers and confabbing about the next harvest. Most of which goes to the Kent County Food Pantry.

The garden, tended by nine volunteers, most, but not all of whom are Master Gardeners, was the brainchild of Barbara Ellis, a beyond-the-call-of-duty expression of Plant a Row (PAR) for the hungry, a program begun by the Garden Writers Association (GWA).

The program urges gardeners to plant an extra row of tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, whatever with the intention of donating the produce from that row to their local food pantries. Begun in 1995, the national program has donated over 14 million pounds of vegetables and herbs to feed the hungry. Ellis, a GWA member with a horticultural degree, has spent the last couple of years collecting extra produce from Kent County gardeners to donate to the food pantry. This year, thanks to the donation of a whole field by Sarah Ruckelshaus, owner of Victory Farm and head of Mid-Atlantic Border Collie Rescue, Ellis considerably expanded her horizons to planting way more than a single row.

The garden, hemmed on one side by fencing (to keep Ruckelshaus’s sheep from both ravaging the place and escaping), at a guess is 15X 50 feet, and is planted with beets, lettuces, peppers, sweet potato, shallots, carrots, peas, lima beans, herbs, pumpkins, gourds, and a veritable forest of tomatoes --38 incredibly robust plants barely contained by a regiment of volunteer-made cages. Among other things, the group has so far donated 40 pounds of mesclun (about a 55-gallon drum in volume) to the food pantry.

“They loved the lettuces,” says volunteer Heather Ransom. “Tender little leaves. This week we have peppers, tomatoes, cucumber…”

“There’s a common misconception that people who come to the food pantry are used to eating vegetables out of cans,” says Ellis, “but that’s not true. They love and look forward to fresh produce in summer as much as anyone. I took in a lot of fresh figs from my neighbor’s trees and they descended on them!”

Everything in the garden is grown organically. The volunteers, some of whom are UMD Master Gardeners, who can apply time spent in the garden toward their required annual volunteer hours, do a rotation on the labor of harvesting and watering, a key component in this drought. There is very little weeding required, the result of careful planning and mulching.

“You don’t want to ask volunteers to weed in August!” says Ellis.

As a reward for the labor, volunteers can take whatever they want from the harvest for themselves. But most has gone to the pantry. Some have home gardens themselves and don’t need the extra produce. They have also seen some people donate produce to the pantry that they themselves don’t want – oversized zucchini, slightly aged beans or peas -- and know from first-hand experience that over-the-hill produce is not only not chosen by food pantry patrons, but puts a burden on pantry volunteers, who must them dispose of it. So, as a matter of both pride and fellow consideration, the community gardeners want to give the very best they have to offer.

In addition to mesclun, they have already donated beets and shallots, and are now prepping the beds for a second planting of beets as well as Brussels sprouts and probably some turnips for fall harvest, the seed for which is mostly donated, the result of Ellis’s status as a garden writer. (Seed companies send you things to trial and then – they hope, and we usually do – write about them.).

This year’s garden was an experiment to see if it would work, if there would be enough sort-of-steady volunteers to spread the burdens of the enterprise fairly evenly across more than one or two pairs of shoulders. So far, more than so good as evidenced by the dedicated volunteers picking and watering here today.

“We wanted to get through the first year to see if we wanted to do it again,” says Ellis. “I’m really pleased with what we’ve done so far. This winter we’ll probably go for non-profit status.”

But before then, the group will happily accept donations. (Maybe it’ll work for your tax return retroactively, maybe not, but whatever. It’s a worthwhile project.). Money is always welcome, but materials are too. They want to build a small shed to hold tools since the volunteers are all carrying their tools around in their cars. They also need leaf grow and manure this fall to bed down the garden for next summer’s planned expansion. This experiment, a labor of love to benefit the community at large, has been a success so far, one all the participants hope to build on.

To volunteer or donate, contact:
Barbara Ellis

Victory Farm

24420 Chestertown Road

Chestertown, MD 21620

(410) 778-4669

While we prefer e-mail, we understand that not everyone else does.

Please restrict phone calls to 8 am to 8 pm EST.

Sarah Ruckleshaus

Nancy Robson is the writer/editor of the's garden and food sections.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Damrosch: Tricks to extend gardening into cold weather

Yes, the temperature was above 90°F Thursday afternoon, and the forecast for Friday is for the high 90’s plus heat index in the low 100’s. But we know “average” summertime temperatures are in slow decline now, and that frost will kill our tender vegetables in about 10 weeks.

Cooler weather is on its way, but Barbara Damrosch, the “A Cook’s Garden” columnist in the Washington Post, this week challenged gardeners to focus on the opponent—the coming winter—and tells what’s in her “bag of tricks” to keep things growing in her vegetable garden until the inevitable deep freeze.

So grumble a bit about the heat and humidity—and then read Damrosch’s article to see how you too might garden on as the temperatures slowly fall toward the deep freeze. CLICK HERE.

Higgins: Beware of the garden police

Have you read about the mother who was arrested for planting a vegetable garden?

Well, the veggie garden was in her front yard, and a local ordinance in a ritzy Detroit suburb required front yards to be of “grass, ground cover, shrubbery or other suitable live plant material.” Apparently vegetables weren’t “suitable live plant material.”

Don’t get too upset because the case was dismissed. But such laws abound. And this week’s “Gardening” column by Adrian Higgins of the Washington Post takes a look at the controversial issue of front-yard gardens.

Please note that I disagree with one of Higgins’ statements, that homeowners associations are an “extension of local government.” He calls them the “ace guardian of landscape behavior,” which is “right on.” Homeowner associations enforce private covenants governing use of property within their jurisdiction, but they are private organizations, not extension of government. Perhaps you’ve read new stories about such associations trying to enforce covenants that prohibit homeowners from flying the flag, putting up crèches or Christmas lights, or painting front doors a prohibited color.

To read Higgins’ article, CLICK HERE.

A nap in the shade

I knew there was a purpose for that shelf under my salad table...

Odd-shaped cucumber

I was going to share this photo of a cucumber I picked from my neighbors' garden while they were away, and explain why it looks like that (no, it's not a variety bred to be round), but then someone else did it for me.  And since I'm lazy at heart, I'll just link you to What Causes a Deformed Cucumber over at the Veggie Gardener blog.

Nonetheless delicious, I assure you.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tomato Patch: How to save more tomatoes

Should I pick this partially ripe Brandywine Red?
Do your heirloom tomatoes crack and get moldy before you think they’re ripe enough to pick? Do your cherry tomatoes all but split before your eyes the day after it rains? Do brown marmorated stink bugs and birds start eating your ripening tomatoes before you do?

Then read on to learn what I’ve just learned—and maybe your heirlooms will split and mold less, you’ll harvest your cherries before they split, and you’ll eat more of your tomatoes before the stink bugs do.

Here’s the story of what I learned last week that is changing the way I think about picking my tomatoes:

When I picked tomatoes for 10¢ a basket as a teenager in southern New Jersey, farmer Joe Uhland set the picking rules: the red fruit must be fully ripe and without major blemish or piece of stem—or the canning company would downgrade the load and Joe would be paid less. For nearly 60 years since Joe set the standard, I’ve been picking tomatoes when they’re fully ripe.

This bit of ancient wisdom, however, got a jolt last Thursday when I was researching on the Internet about the effect of extreme heat on tomatoes. I discovered a posting that directly challenged my belief that I should pick only fully ripe tomatoes. I laughed out loud when I read it. I was astounded—but it made sense.

This eureka moment came when I read a Kansas State University Research & Extension posting titled “Hot Weather Threatens Tomato Plants” and a sidebar caught my attention: “Harvested Tomatoes Can ‘Vine-Ripen.’” I’ll post a link below so you can read the posting if you wish, but here are the main points made by Chuck Marr, a Kansas State University horticulturist, now retired (with my additional comments in parentheses):

1. Tomatoes at full red-ripe stage have optimum nutrition, color, and flavor, but they don’t have to be on the vine to reach that point. (Let’s assume this applies to tomatoes of all colors.)

2. Tomatoes start producing ethylene gas internally when they reach full size and turn pale green from their earlier dark green. The ethylene regulates the ripening process. (Tomato growers in Florida, for example, gas their dark-green fruit with ethylene to turn them red in winter, so we can have beautiful red tomatoes that taste like green ones.)

3. When the tomatoes reach the “breaker stage”—about half green and half pink—“a layer of cells forms across their stem, sealing them off from the main vine. At this state, tomatoes can ripen on or off the vine with no loss of quality or flavor,” Marr explained. (If the variety produces a color of fruit other than red, determining “breaker stage” may be more challenging.)

4. Pick tomatoes at “breaker stage” and you can let them ripen slowly in a cool place—minimum of 50°F—or more quickly at higher temperatures—up to 85°F—( such as on your kitchen counter.) They will not ripen in your refrigerator (where the temperature is below 40°F).

Wow! After I got over the initial shock, I thought of several problems that “picking early” might solve:

1. In extreme hot weather, some red-tomato varieties stop making red pigments at about 95°F, so the fruit can be fully mature when it’s yellow-red. If you wait for the fruit to turn deep red, the fruit may begin to spoil before you decide to pick.

2. Some large-red varieties, including many heirlooms, tend to split when near ripe and often begin to mold or have other problems. If you pick them before they reach this problem stage, you will harvest better quality fruit. This has happened already this season in the Tomato Patch. A gnarled Brandywine Red split at its blossom end before it was fully ripe and began to mold. I tried to salvage some of the ripe fruit but had to discard most of it. Picking early may avoid the splits and the mold.

3. Many cherry tomato varieties are known to split—and begin a quick decline in quality—after it rains. One of my favorites, Sungold, does that regularly. It rained here Monday afternoon, and by Tuesday morning many of the ripening Sungolds already had split. Picking early may avoid such splits.

4. I admit I sometimes don’t know when the fruit of a particular variety is fully ripe. I grow Brandywine (Sudduth’s Strain) and often wonder how “pink” the fruit must be to be ripe. And how do I know when a Virginia Sweets is ripe? It’s described on its seed packet as a gold-red bicolor and a “golden yellow beefsteak … colored with red stripes that turn into a ruby blush.” Picking early may help me monitor the fruit as it ripens on our kitchen counter.

5. Think of all the critters that like to dine on tomatoes, from insects, such as the tomato-sipping brown marmorated stink bug, to traditional harvesters such as birds, squirrels, and the occasional box turtle. Picking early may mean I will enjoy my tomatoes more than they will.

Should I put so many tomatoes in one basket, so to speak, just because one posting by one horticulturist says I should pick earlier?

I did a quick Internet search about when to pick tomatoes. Many postings followed the traditional rule to pick only fully ripe fruit, but several others pointed out that wasn’t necessary. One, the Aggie Horticulture site of AgriLife Extension (Texas A&M University), gave this reply to a question about leaving fruit on plants until fully ripe: “Generally, yields will be increased by harvesting the fruit at first blush or pink instead of leaving them on the plant to ripen fully. A tomato picked at first sign of color and ripened at room temperature will be just as tasty as one left to fully mature on the vine.”

I’m “three score and 10 plus” years and still learning new things about picking and growing tomatoes, but perhaps that challenges of gardening what makes it so attractive, even to ancient gardeners.

I’m going to start experimenting by picking “breaker stage” tomatoes, and I think you should too. If you do, be sure to come back and Comment about how it works for you.

If you want to read the Kansas State University posting, “Harvested Tomatoes Can ‘Vine-Ripen,’” CLICK HERE.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Moma Said .... Eat Your Berries

The pigments that give berries their beautiful black, blue and red colors are also good for your health. Berries contain phytochemicals and flavanoids that may help to prevent some forms of cancer. Cranberries and blueberries contain a substance that may prevent bladder infections. Eating a diet rich in blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, cranberries and strawberries may help to reduce your risk of several types of cancers. Blueberries and raspberries also contain lutien, which is important for healthy vision.
Choosing Berries
Most grocery stores carry a wide variety of fresh, canned and frozen berries. Look for ripe, colorful and firm berries with no sign of mold or mushy spots. Berries can also be found in the frozen section of your grocery store. Once berries thaw, they will not be as firm as freshly picked berries, but they remain delicious and good for you.
For the freshest berries, try growing berries right in your own back yard as one local Carroll County gardener has done in this picture or you can visit your local farmers market that offer berries harvested that same day. Some local berry farms allow you to pick your own berries.

Ideas for Serving Berries

Most berries are sweet enough to be served just as they are; however, here are some more ideas:

· Top a bowl of berries with a dollop of light-whipped topping and a sprinkling of chopped pecans or walnuts
· Add berries to a bowl of whole grain cereal
· Sprinkle berries on a salad
· Stir fresh berries into vanilla yogurt
· Combine frozen berries with bananas and low-fat milk to make a smoothie

Pulling the devil’s hair

What's that--a piece of yellow string?
Have you found any devil’s hair in your garden?
The devil has been primping in our garden. I know because I’ve found devil’s hair. Devil’s hair has other common names that indicate the fear it engenders wherever plants are grown, including devilgut, devil’s ringlet, hell bind, stranglevine, and strangleweed.

This plant isn’t a positive addition to any garden, except, perhaps, one where sulfur fumes waft from brimstone pits and temperatures are significantly higher than those of Mid-Atlantic Summer 2011. Devil’s hair is dodder (Cuscuta spp.), of which 10 of the world’s 150 varieties grow in Maryland, according to USDA maps online.

A tangle of devil's hair
“Grow” somehow doesn’t seem like the best verb to use with this parasitic plant—which has leaves that usually are more like scales, often nearly invisible. It has little or no chlorophyll so must attach itself to a host plant to suck nourishment within a few days of sprouting—or it dies.

“How did that yellow string get into our bed of moss phlox?” I thought when I first saw the parasite. I looked closer and found the string was tightly twined around phlox stems and was blooming, with small white flowers.

This string is not welcome in farm and garden country because its hosts include such food crops as asparagus, beet, carrot, eggplant, garlic, melon, onion, pepper, potato, sweet potato, tomato, plus a wide variety of other plants ranging from chrysanthemums and azaleas to alfalfa, clover, and legumes.

Moss phlox strangled by blooming dodder
Dodder can be a real hell bind in large agricultural settings, but in a relatively small home garden its control usually is relatively simple: hand pulling the devil’s hair before it goes to seed, pruning parts of hosts that it’s strangling, and treating this year’s dodder areas next spring with a pre-emergent herbicide to eliminate a new crop.

I’ve pulled every piece of the blond devil’s hair that I can find, but I suspect I haven’t got it all in the tangled mass of moss phlox. I’ve sprinkled some Preen, a pre-emergent herbicide, in the general area to prevent any remaining seeds from sprouting this year, and I’ll put down more Preen next spring.

I’ve been checking the moss phlox every few days and discovered that the dodder comes back quickly. I’ve learned that “pulling” the dodder doesn’t solve the problem if I leave remnants with roots embedded in the stems of the host plant. I’ve gone back twice with my pruners to cut off regrowth of the dodder an inch or so below where it has a stranglehold on the phlox.

This is the kind of problem that will take vigilance to solve, so whenever I walk by the moss phlox, I’ll pause to inspect to make sure there are no new strands or tangles of devil’s hair.

If you have a minute to look at some fantastic dodder photos, including one of the parasite on a tomato stem, CLICK HERE to access the website of the dodder page of the Biology Department of Swarthmore College.

Note of July 28, 2011:  This morning I used scissors to cut out new dodder growth in the moss phlox and, for the first time, in a salvia plant nearby.  This is my third cutting of visible dodder.  Eradicating the dodder will take time.  I've put "Put down Preen in dodder area" on my schedule for next April.  Until then, I'll have to be constantly vigilant.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Tomato Patch: How tomatoes react to extreme heat

When the forecast predicts the temperature will approach 100° F, I water the Tomato Patch just after dawn and, usually, soaked to the skin with sweat, retreat to the shower and then breakfast with Ellen. Throughout the day I check our digital thermometer and wonder how my tomatoes are coping in the heat.

Extreme heat—such as the 106°F officially recorded at nearby BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport on Friday afternoon-- affects tomatoes in several ways.

One is that high temperatures can cause “tomato blossom drop.” In a posting of that title, describes the problem as where tomato blossoms “dry up and fall off the plant before a fruit is formed.” The posting explains: “Tomatoes grow best if daytime temperatures range between 70 F / 21 C and 85 F / 29 C. While tomato plants can tolerate more extreme temperatures for short periods, several days or nights with temps outside the ideal range will cause the plant to abort fruit set and focus on survival. … High nighttime temps are even worse than high daytime temperatures because the tomato plant never gets to rest.”

Perhaps there’s not a specific temperature at which blossom drop begins. Online postings state general figures, like the statement above, ranging from 85 to 95 degrees. The point is that high temperatures can interfere with tomato fruit production. Since our local temperature reached 106°F on Friday, I’ll mention that a University of Nevada website said a 104°F temperature for as little as four hours will cause blossom drop.

Yellow Plum tomato leaves respond to high temperatures
Another tomato response to extreme heat involves its leaves. Perhaps you’ve noticed that some tomato varieties respond to heat by curling their leaves. That’s a defensive mechanism that attempts to slow transpiration of water from plant to atmosphere.

But extreme heat can cause more than leaf curling. In a posting titled “Excessive heat on tomato plants,” describes what can happen: “The damage done to a tomato plant in excessive heat can include wilting stems and leaves that become dried and brittle. Also, the tomatoes themselves can be damaged. Their growth can be halted with excessive heat. Even if they look ripe, tomatoes that have been exposed to intense heat can be red outside and green inside.” Other sites mention that tomatoes often stop making red pigments at high temperatures, so red varieties under extreme conditions may turn pink or orange-red, rather than red, when they ripen.

Despite the extreme heat and its adverse effects on the Tomato Patch, there are still reasons for hope.  A horticulturist with the Kansas State University Research and Extension commented about blossom drop: “You can’t do anything to prevent it, although some varieties are more prone to blossom drop than others. If you can keep the plants alive and healthy, however, they’ll put out new flowers that produce fruit when cooler weather returns.”

So if your plants suffer blossom drop, don’t despair! Make sure your plants are well mulched and deep-watered, and when cooler weather returns, your plants will start flowering and setting fruit again, hopefully with enough time to produce ripe fruit before fall frost.

Ah, cooler weather—when is that coming?

I thought you’d never ask.

Cooler weather, on the average, begins today!

Let me explain. Several years ago, I found a tab at that allowed me to research and print out daily average temperatures for Dayton, Maryland, the nearest town for which statistics were available. I printed out the averages (since 1967 apparently) for both high and low temperatures for the entire year.

The highest average high temperature for this neighborhood is 88° from July 18 to 23. The average drops one degree, to 87°, on July 24, which is today. Our highest average low temperature is 64° from July 17 to 26, and our nighttime temperatures will drop one degree on Tuesday.

Now doesn’t the fact that, on average, cooler weather begins today make the recent extreme heat wave seem just a bit more tolerable?

Let’s hope—for the sake of our tomatoes and our electricity bills—that average temperatures soon return.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Damrosch: Don't hoe weeds, eat them

Why slave away weeding your garden when you can eat many of those weeds?

In her “A Cook’s Garden” column in today’s Washington Post, Barbara Damrosch lists common weeds that—with a little oil and some seasonings—make for good, tasty eating.

“Growing right under everyone’s noses, all over the world,” Damrosch writes, “are plants that are powerhouses of nutrients, often superior to the cultivated greens that farmers are paid to grow.”

To read Damrosch’s article, CLICK HERE.

Lettuce in July?

Well, until the middle of July at least.

I took this photo at the demo garden on Tuesday, documenting our spring-planted lettuce, which still looks like lettuce instead of like towers of bolted reddish-green with yellow flowers.  Does it still taste like lettuce?  Up till last week, it did - this week we decided not to harvest because the flavor was getting bitter, instead just leaving it to look pretty (hey, there are aesthetic qualities to lettuce, and I don't have anything ready to grow in its place yet).  But yes, you can have lettuce in July.

What's the secret?  First, the lettuce bed gets morning sun and afternoon shade, which helps slow the bolting.  All-day filtered shade would work even better.  Secondly, I chose varieties that claim heat tolerance - these are Rouge Grenobloise and New Red Fire, but others work as well: read the catalog descriptions and select wisely.  Judicious regular harvests would probably help as well, though what these plants got was an occasional razing when I arrived and said, "What?  Still lettuce?  This won't last another week!" and cut it all to the ground.

My experiment at home, growing June-planted lettuce in between tomato plants in raised beds, worked pretty well too, although I've had to discontinue harvests because the lettuce is between tomato plants and therefore I can't reach it.  Better planning next year will help with this issue.

If anyone manages to get their lettuce edibly through 100+ temperatures this weekend, I'd love to hear about it.

Beautiful “worms” on our dill

A beautiful "worm"
It’s time to start looking for big green, black, and gold “worms” chomping away on the flowers and leaves of your dill and other herbs and vegetables.

No—your first thought of killing them doesn’t get thumbs-up here because the “worms” are more good than bad. They are bad in the sense they’ll eat some of your dill and parsley—and maybe some of the foliage of your carrots and celery too—but they are good because they are caterpillars or larvae of the black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes). Parsley gives both the caterpillar and the adult their nicknames, “parsley worm” and “parsley swallowtail.”

Four larvae on one dill flowerhead
I found our first caterpillars on Tuesday—15 of them on our dill plants. When you find one, don’t bring out the heavy artillery. Share a little of your veggie leaves with the caterpillars. Share a minute with a “worm” as it munches on the foliage. By sharing your dill or parsley, you’re helping complete the life cycle of the beautiful black swallowtail.

And as the summer wears on, let some of your dill go to seed, so you’ll have volunteer plants next year to add both herbal essence and food for the black swallowtail caterpillars to your 2012 garden.

Take a second look at the “worm.”

Beautiful, isn’t it?

If you kill a "worm,"
you won't have one of these

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Different Way To Plant Late Season Potatoes

Several weeks ago, I blogged about harvesting my early season potatoes. This planting was done in mid-March using a conventional planting method. I tilled the bed using my Troy Bilt tiller with the furrow attachment connected behind the tines. It makes about an eight inch deep furrow, into which I planted my seed potatoes.

For my late season crop of potatoes, I'm using a different method which disturbs the soil less. My reason for using this method is to retain more of my organic matter in the soil. If I tilled the soil a second time, I would introduce a lot of additional oxygen which soil organisms would use along with water and nitrogen to digest any remaining carbon in the soil, emitting CO2.

So what is my different method, well its simple. I simply pulled my old, rusty post hole digger out of the shed and dug an 8 to 10 inch hole into which I placed my seed potatoes. How will this method work, stay tuned and I'll let you know in early October.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


The trellises are filling up fast in the demo garden, and this cattle panel arch is one of the most impressive.  On it we're growing cucuzzi gourds (Lagenaria siceraria) which I just had to have after admiring them at Monticello last year.

They're pretty big, but very edible.  This one is well over a foot long, and will keep growing till it's three feet or more (by which time it may not be so edible).

Here's what William Woys Weaver has to say about these gourds in 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From:

"This culinary gourd has been raised in the Mediterranean region for at least two thousand years, perhaps even longer, for ceramic copies of it have been found in archeological sites on Cyprus and in Egypt. ... Prior to contact with the New World, Zucca [meaning gourd, but now extended to all sorts of squash] a Tromba was this long, baseball bat-like gourd that furnished Italian gardeners with a source of zucchini (baby gourds).  Once New World squashes were introduced in the 1500s, it was quickly discovered that the young fruits could also be used in the same manner, hence the transfer of cooking techniques and terminology."

I harvested this slightly larger but less potentially decorative fruit today (lying on the ground, it wouldn't get long and straight) and prepared half of it for dinner, sauteed in olive oil with onions, garlic and medium-hot peppers.  It tastes a lot like zucchini (the Cucurbita pepo sort) though I'd call it a little blander with a tougher skin (should be harvested younger).

This is how it looks, cut up.
Other features of this interesting plant include the leaves (you can get a sense in the above photos how impressively large they are) and the flowers, which are similar to those of other gourds such as the luffa, but a creamy white.  You have to photograph them earlier in the morning than I got around to it today - this one is a little the worse for wear.  (If you look closely you can see a cucumber beetle resting in the flower.  The plant doesn't appear to have any serious insect damage, however.)

The other thing that really impresses me about cucuzzi is the strength of the tendrils.  They are massive!  This can be a problem if you are not around to frequently persuade the vines that they want to climb the structure you've offered and not some other adjacent structure or plant.  I've had to snap quite a few tendrils already - no problem for the cucuzzi, though.

I seem to have used the word "impressive" and its forms a lot in this post!  Well, that's what the cucuzzi gourd is.  It reminds me of the zucchetta tromboncino (or rampicante) squash we usually grow but are skipping this year (that one would be on the Americas side of the garden if we were growing it), but it is a little more agreeable when it comes to climbing.  It's fun - if you have room, try it!

Blue Cucumber Seeds?

Blue cucumber seeds
Surprise! When I tapped cucumber seeds into my hand from their packet, they were bright blue.

Hmm. Am I growing blue cucumbers this year? What’s going on here?

I took a closer look at the packet, which I had bought from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. This warning appears at the bottom of the packet front: CAUTION: SEED TREATED WITH THIRAM. DO NOT USE FOR FOOD, FEED OR OIL.

Later I checked Johnny’s catalog and noted that the Diva cucumber seeds were available “Treated” or “Untreated.” The “Glossary of Terms” in the catalog explains: “Treated—Seeds that have a coating of fungicides and/or insecticides intended to protect the seeds from rotting or insect damage in the soil before germination.”

A quick check on Wikipedia informed me that thiram is an organic, sulfur-based fungicide with many agricultural uses, including use as an animal repellant. The Wikipedia entry on the fungicide said thiram “is nearly immobile in clay [typical central Maryland soil] or in soils of rich organic matter [your garden]. It is not expected to contaminate groundwater because of its in-soil half life of 15 days and tendency to stick to soil particles.”

Why the packet warning? Wikipedia said thiram is “moderately toxic” if you eat it and “highly toxic” if you inhale it.

Why does a “white to yellow crystalline powder” end up as a blue coating on a cucumber seed? Perhaps it’s another warning that something is different and should be checked out. Would a more appropriate color be red?

If I reorder Diva cucumber seeds next year, I’ll have to consider whether I want to buy treated or untreated seeds. I suppose the amount of thiram on the seeds is so small that I should have no major concern, but, still, do I want to introduce another toxin—however beneficial—into my garden?

Note: I queried Johnny’s about thiram on July 3 and have not yet received a response.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Tomato Patch: The killers are back

Male cicada killer "on guard"
I ducked involuntarily as a big “something” buzzed my head as I was weeding in the Tomato Patch.

An inquisitive hummingbird? A wren parent distracting me from a nearby fledgling? A pterodactyl?

No, it was just a killer—a large wasp known as the cicada killer.

Perhaps you’ve seen them—black-and-yellow wasps (Sphecius speciosus) that zoom with jet-like speed and dig nickel-size holes in the ground. They’re of a size—an inch and a half long--that causes insect haters to panic when one flashes by or rearranges hair on the top of your head as it hovers an inch above. They’re common throughout North America and often live on forest edges and city parks—plus in the Tomato Patch and flower gardens here at Meadow Glenn.

Nesting site in Tomato Patch
National Audubon Society Field Guide to Insects & Spiders (North America) indicates adults feed on nectar and larvae feed on cicadas, though from reactions I’ve observed when a killer buzzes a visitor, they may as well be vampires looking for a soft neck.

The male killers stake out breeding areas, sometimes called leks, from perches on plants, bricks, or stones, sort of like fighter jets sitting at the ready on an aircraft carrier. I’ve walked by them and been “buzzed” hundreds of times, but never stung. The reason is simple: The aggressive male guards don’t have stingers. Please don’t tell my friends that because they think I’m super brave as I nonchalantly walk by as the killers zip and zoom around me.

For two weeks now the male killers have been doing aerial combat as they stake out territories in and around our gardens and sidewalks.

Here’s how the Audubon guide describes what cicada killers are up to: “Several females work together to build nest of branching tunnels in light clay to sandy soil, making 2 or 3 cells at end. Front legs are used for digging, hind legs for kicking out dirt. Nest entrance is usually left open, while females hunt cicadas one at a time. Each victim is stung and carried back to nest. 1-2 cicadas are placed in each cell; 1 egg is laid on last one.”

Tunnel entrance with fresh "kickings"
I’ve already found two tunnel entrances in our Tomato Patch. One was behind a piece of slate that I had leaned against a terrace wall, and the other was angled through straw mulch and into the side of a hill I’d built up around plants. I’ve found five or six more entrances in other gardens—under lamb’s ear leaves, blanket flowers, blue star junipers, moss phlox, the watering hose, and sidewalks.

I’m a live-and-let-live sort of a guy, so I accept the presence of the cicada killers—except those in areas where they terrorize visitors or where I work daily and am in danger of seriously offending them. I’ve “puffed” some Sevin into the entrances of the tunnels in the Tomato Garden and several along our sidewalks.

When I was weeding in one of our veggie patches yesterday (Sunday), a female cicada killer landed about four feet from me with a paralyzed cicada under her. She became confused because, I suspect, I had just hoed shut the entrance to her tunnel. Then like a mighty helicopter lifting a huge truck, she flew the cicada to what she thought was the trunk of a nearby tree—apparently so she could look over the situation, locate her tunnel entrance, and let gravity help her fly her baby food into her nesting chamber.

The tree trunk, however, was the black leg of my denim work pants, and she started to drag the cicada up my left pants leg. When she got to my knee, I shook my pants leg and she fell off, dropping the paralyzed cicada. She flew around the cicada, grabbed it again, and tried to fly it to the “tree trunk” again.

She may have thought my denim pants leg
was a tree trunk
I backed away before she landed, and she crashed with her load on the sidewalk. I snapped a photo and she dragged her prize toward my shoe for the third time. I retreated and she turned course and dragged the huge bug up a nearby retaining wall and disappeared into a bed of lilies.

I am not surprised to report that I am alive and well. Though they can sting, female cicada killers seldom are aggressive, and this one was clearly preoccupied with carrying the paralyzed cicada to her nesting cell. I never felt in danger. In fact, after the encounter, I felt just a bit sad that I may have seriously disrupted her reproduction cycle.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Why did I plant so much?

I'd like to tell y'all about my day...

The day started around 8:30AM, when I got out of bed and took last year's zucchini bread out of the freezer to enjoy with tea and the Sunday paper. (Good thing I made 4 more zucchini breads yesterday to stock up my freezer for next year!) After a relaxing morning with Nicolas, the plan of the day was preserving. Nicolas took the pickles (9 pints), while I made the triple berry jam (9 half-pints). We also had a plethora of string beans (yellow and green), and so we thought we'd freeze some of them (after blanching), and then put the rest in a three bean salad. Our tomato (saladette this year, supposedly disease-resistant - hah!) collection was growing, so we preserved a couple of jars of those. Oh, and the beets have been wanting to be harvested, so we roasted several of them for dinner. The greens are edible, so we sauteed them with some olive oil and some garlic (after removing the stems and tough veins). Not having enough zucchini yesterday with the bread, I made a double batch of zucchin-apple soup for freezing. And I still have 2 zucchini left over!

Did I mention even after making 9 pints of pickles I had 10 pounds left over that went right to the local soup kitchen?

I'm exhausted!!! Every year about this time I ask myself, 'why did I plant so much?' It never seems all that much when I put the little seedlings in the ground. Indeed, here is my main 10'x25' plot, taken just this afternoon:
Doesn't look like much, does it? Well, in this spot are: ~15' of cucumbers, 4 bell peppers, 4 tomatoes (including one rogue I didn't actually plant), 16' of string beans, 5 pumpkin plants, 3 cantaloupes, 3 butternut squash, and 4 other, random winter squash as yet to be determined.

So here's the front of my house, with 4 hills of zucchini looking lovely in my 'flower beds' (note the petunias being relegated to the window boxes on the porch):

The next 3 pics are: the watermelon in my other flower bed, the extra tomatoes and pepper plants in the backyard (couldn't bear to let them go to waste), and the back of the original 10'x25' plot.

And so finally, why do I plant so much? Because of this:

This was our dinner tonight. It's probably easier to tell you what on this plate we DIDN'T produce ourselves, but in short, the potato, string beans, orange pepper, red onion, parsley, zucchini (in the soup), beet greens all came from our garden.


Being There, Part Two

Speckled Roman tomatoes, waiting to ripen
I have to admit - much as I am in favor of drip irrigation systems - I didn't, exactly... well, in any way... get mine in this year.  So I am watering by hand, which can be either tedious or fun depending on the day, and is made much more interesting by the wasp nest affixed to the hose holder (the hose is coiled on the ground at the moment).

I do try to water in the mornings to limit the possibility of fungal disease, to focus the spray as much as possible at the roots and not on the leaves, and to give each plant the time it deserves so the water penetrates deeply.  And hand-watering does have the advantage of forcing you to spend time in your garden observing plants.

This morning when I was watering I discovered all of the following:

  • The tomatillo cage had fallen over and was leaning on some tomatoes that are already stressed and don't need a thug (I'm sorry, but that's what tomatillos are) invading their territory more than it already is.  Needed to be braced up in several directions.
  • A whole bunch of tomato branches needed tying up.  Or tieing up, as Bob advises.
  • A Charentais melon was big enough to require supporting.  Here's a good explanation of how to do it, from a demo garden blog in Kansas.  I used a net bag instead of pantyhose.
  • A zucchini that looks fine and healthy nevertheless has tell-tale frass at the stem base.  Looks like a squash borer.  Not sure I got it, alas.
  • Another zucchini is obviously stressed, but no signs of a borer.  It's in a large pot - appears to have plenty of water, but perhaps just the confined roots and extra heat are getting to it.  Nothing to be done except keep the moisture levels even.
  • The compost volunteer peppers needed staking.  Still no clue what kind they are.
  • Lots of bees; no stink bugs.  (I saw one on a blackberry yesterday.)
  • More mouse melons to harvest, oh dear.  Like I should complain.  Time to pickle!
  • My pomegranate now has six - six! - little fruits on it.  Okay, I noticed that yesterday, but just thought I'd mention it...
 So, whether it's for watering, harvesting, or just walking around, get out in your gardens!  You never know what you'll see.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Barbara Damrosch on celery root

I’ve never grown celery root, also called celeriac, turnip-rooted celery, knob celery, and “the frog prince of vegetables,” according to Barbara Damrosch in her “A Cook’s Garden” column in the Washington Post.

Barbara tells you where to buy seeds, how to grow it, and how to cook it. If you’re planning to expand your “to-grow” veggie list for next year, check out “Celery root’s deep-down goodness,” which is headlined online as “Celery root may be daunting but it can be rewarding to have in your garden.” CLICK HERE.

Adrian Higgins on blueberries

Adrian Higgins, the Washington Post’s gardening writer, this week rhapsodizes about blueberries and how to grow them.

Among other things, Adrian likes the looks of blueberry plants, talks about netting (he’s against) to keep out birds, and touches on soil conditioning and available varieties. He’s just planted 10 Tifblue, Premier, and Blueray.

If you’ve been thinking about growing blueberries, you should read Adrian’s article, “Blueberries, the apple of my eye,” which online has the headline “Blueberries provide benefits to gardens beyond fruit (so don’t hate the birds).” CLICK HERE.

Tomato Patch: Brush your tomato blossoms?

Would you really do it?

Did you brush your tomato blossoms today?

Patterson Clark’s “Urban Jungle” feature, “Plight of the bumblebee,” in the Washington Post this week reminded me of the continuing discussion about how tomato plants are pollinated.

Patterson’s first paragraph sets the stage: “That tomato ripening in your garden probably got its start after a visit from a bumblebee.” He calls bumblebees “buzz pollinators” that “will clinch a flower in its jaws and rapidly vibrate its wing muscles to give the blossom a good shake” to dislodge pollen that the bee collects. In the process, the tomato flower is pollinated and fruit formation begins.

That’s an important part of the tomato pollination story, but bumblebees aren’t the only “buzz pollinators” at work in the Tomato Patch. In fact, “sonication” is a more accurate word to describe the vibrating process that loosens the pollen in the male part of a tomato blossom and allows it to come into contact with, and fertilize, the female part of the same blossom.

Other than bees, other important sonicators—if there is such a word—are wind, animals, and humans.

You can easily imagine how spring and summer breezes—or a gusty thunderstorm-- vibrate or shake tomato plants so pollination takes place. Your golden retriever’s wagging tail might do the job too—or a neighborhood squirrel climbing a plant to rob you of a growing fruit.

And humans? When we work in the Tomato Patch, our hand-weeding, hoeing, and sucker pinching often vibrate or shake our plants. Hey, we’re “buzz pollinators”—aren’t you impressed?

But some growers go out of their way and intentionally assist the pollination process by gently tapping the stem of a blossom truss with a finger. I’ve read suggestions to carry a pencil to tap on the stems. One online recommendation urged three to five shakings a day.

Perhaps the human buzz extreme, the ultimate in intentional pollinating efforts, is to vibrate tomato blossoms with a battery-operated toothbrush. I suppose a gardener doing that would quietly hum the toothpaste jingle, “You’ll wonder where the pollen went, when you brush your blossoms with Pepsodent.”

What do I do?

I’ve never tapped tomato flowers with a pencil or vibrated them with a toothbrush. We don’t have a dog with a long wagging tail. Other than minor vibrations I cause when doing routine gardening chores in the Tomato Patch, I’ve always left the job of pollination to nature’s big-two tomato pollinators—the wind and the bumblebees and other insects.

But it’s confession time. Since I began thinking about writing this blog, I’ve paused a time or two to tap new blossom trusses with my right index finger—just to make sure, of course.

To read Patterson Clark’s feature, which sparked my thinking about tomato pollination, CLICK HERE.