Monday, October 31, 2011

Glimmer of Hope: Bats & the Lethal White-Nose Syndrome

A lethal disease is ravaging bat colonies from eastern Canada and New England to North Carolina.  The disease, white-nose syndrome, is caused by a fungus that causes holes to form in the membranes that enable bats to fly.  Surveys indicate that in some areas the population of little brown bats has declined 91% and that of northern bats by 98%.

The economic implications for agriculture can be dramatic because a colony of 150 bats eats about 1.3 million insects each year, according to one study.  Fewer bats, of course, mean more insects and more alternative means of insect control, which generally means more pesticides.  One estimate values bats at more than $3 billion a year.

There is a glimmer of hope, however.  Scientists see some evidence that the disease may not be as lethal in warmer climates.  Note the operative word: perhaps.

If you have any interest in bats and their relationship to the environment, or just enjoy watching a little brown bat swooping over your garden in search of insects, you’ll want to read “On the trail of a bat scourge” by Darryl Fears in today’s Washington PostCLICK HERE.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Everything but the pie !

Welcome to the 2011 pumpkin weekend where, during Halloween weekend, the goal is to make dishes with the pumpkins we grow.

Sadly this year, we had no carving pumpkin for Halloween. :( . The only one we had didn't have a long shelf life. The other can be seen in the picture below. The vine measures 50 feet long from the green arrow to the end.As you can see, it's not ready yet. Thanks to the pickling worm who destroyed (almost) all the female flowers on this vine.

Fortunately, we did have these four pie pumpkins. For the record, there are no pickling worm holes on these pumpkins. :) Let the fun begin!

Sure pumpkin pie is always a good idea but during the weekend we ate.....

Pumpkin Ravioli. Easy to do: just mix grated cheese and pumpkin puree, add some herbs and nutmeg and squeeze a teaspoon of the mixture between two sheets of won ton pasta wrappers.

Pumpkin Stew and Pumpkin Rolls. The stew was made with carrots from our garden and served with fresh homegrown wax beans. For the rolls, they were like my wife likes them : doughy and fragrant.

To close Pumpkin Weekend why not put some pumpkin ice cream on top of chocolate ice cream? It's not home made but locally made.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Vote for Kent County MS Victory Garden!

Hello everyone!
Sabine Harvey of Kent County Extension has signed the Kent County Middle School Victory Garden up for a Mother Earth News Garden photo contest.  The editors of the magazine will pick two winners from the 25 gardens that get the most votes from the public. The winners will receive $500 for the garden and they will be featured in the magazine. Sabine and countless volunteers have kept this garden going throughout the heat of the summer and have donated over 500 lbs of produce grown in the garden to the local food pantry.  Additionally, the children that participate in helping with the garden are learning so much about where their food actually comes from.

Please take a moment and vote for this garden (also, check out all the photos).  You can click here to go directly to the KCMS page, and here to see the main contest page.

You are allowed to vote once every 24 hours ONLY UNTIL Tuesday, Nov. 1.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Other blogs to visit

As we madly finish up our fall gardening tasks and anticipate winter, you may wonder what you'll be reading on those cold days and dark evenings when the garden just doesn't call.

We'll have plenty for you here on Grow It Eat It, but if you'd like to expand your blog horizons, those of us GIEI bloggers who write elsewhere would be pleased if you'd visit.  I've recently started a blog called Rogue Eggplant to explore other aspects of my gardening life.  Bob Nixon writes at Blog of an Ancient Gardener - you may find his series about dealing with deer especially useful!  Dale Johnson is one of the contributors to Backyard Farming, a blog about the urban homestead.  And our own DivaGardener welcomes you to her piece of Fat Earth.

Also check out all the blogs under "Favorites" in our left sidebar.  They are all great!  And be sure to take time to thoroughly explore our University of Maryland Extension sites, Grow It Eat It (the website) and Home and Garden Information Center.  Check out our Facebook page and Twitter feed, too!  And watch all our videos - they are both educational and funny.

If you've got blogs you'd like to recommend, mention them in comments.  I'm sure we'd all like some book recommendations, too - I'm ready to hunker down and read while the snow swirls outside...

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

High Night Temperatures Can Lower Yields

I am in fall gardening mode which means I’m still thinking about some of the state-wide complaints from gardeners about lower than expected bean, pepper, and tomato yields during the hottest weeks of the past summer (mid-June through mid-August). Although many factors can reduce flowering and fruiting I believe that high night temperature is a growing, and overlooked, cause of this problem.

In general, warm-season crops can tolerate high day temperatures but can be negatively affected by higher than normal night temperatures, which hovered around 80°F in Maryland’s urban and suburban areas for most of July. Here’s an overview of this aspect of climate change from the USDA:

Some crops are particularly sensitive to high nighttime temperatures, which have been rising evenfaster than daytime temperatures. Nighttime temperatures are expected to continue to rise in the future. These changes in temperature are especially critical to the reproductive phase of growth because warm nights increase the respiration rate and reduce the amount of carbon that is captured during the day by photosynthesis to be retained in the fruit or grain…. Common snap beans show substantial yield reduction when nighttime temperatures exceed 80°F.

Many of us observed healthy mid-summer snap bean crops with few flowers or pods. Yields increased once the weather cooled in mid-August. Experienced gardeners have lamented poor lima bean crops in recent years. Stink bug feeding has been a problem in beans but increasing night heat could also be at play. Research studies have shown that high night temperature causes sterile pollen and damages flower buds. Cowpea (a heat-loving crop!) yields consistently decline when night temperatures increase from 60°F to 75°F.

On another global warming note… I attended the annual meeting of the American Society for Horticultural Science a few weeks ago and heard an interesting talk on how Shading Levels Affect Bell Pepper Fruit Yield (Juan Carlos Diaz-Perez; University of Georgia). The researchers found that erecting shade cloth over bell pepper plants increased yields. The lowest yields were from completely unshaded plants and the highest yields were from plants with 30% shading. Shading lowered leaf and root temperatures and reduced the incidence of blossom-end rot and sunscald.

So what’s the upshot? Climate change is real and night temperatures are on the rise.

Some garden-level responses? Try providing some shade to pepper plants in full-sun gardens. Plant snap beans multiple times and focus more on spring and late summer plantings. Plant limas late so they bear pods from late August through September. Experiment with planting bean, tomato, and pepper in spots where they will receive some late afternoon shade.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Swiss Chard Pancakes

In honor of World Food Day, I made Swiss Chard Pancakes and shared them at work.

I was listening to the Splendid Table on NPR on Saturday and thought all of the recipes sounded really yummy. I was getting hungry just listening. Vietnamese Pho was just what I wanted, but didn't have the time or ingredients at hand. But I did have Swiss chard ready to harvest and couldn't wait to try out this recipe. Dorie Greenspan's recipe for Swiss Chard Pancakes makes 40 pancakes. I cut the recipe in half but it only made about a dozen 5 inch pancakes. I served them with a dollop of creme fraiche topped with red caviar.

Swiss Chard Pancakes (adapted from Dorie Greenspan's recipe)

1 cup 1% milk
2 1/3 cups flour
2 large eggs
1/2 small sweet onion
1 clove garlic
leaves from about 7 Italian parsley sprigs
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
5-7 Swiss chard leaves
peanut oil

Blend milk, flour, eggs, onion, garlic, parsley, salt, pepper, and thyme in a blender. Tear leaves from chard stems and mid ribs and add to blender.

Heat about 1 tablespoon of peanut (or other oil of your choice) in non-stick skillet. Swirl in pan to coat bottom. Pour about 1/4 cup of mixture into pan for each pancake. I could fit 3 pancakes at a time into my pan. Flip after about 3 minutes when top looks dry and bottom is lightly browned. Cook for another minute or 2 until other side is lightly browned. Remove and keep warm until all pancakes are cooked. Add more oil to pan as needed.

Serve as-is as a side dish. Or you can top with a dollop of creme fraiche and a little bit of red lumpfish caviar for a real treat. Looks great too!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Really cool information for gardeners

Frosted sungold tomato (Nov. 11, 2007)
Whenever two gardeners chat these days, one almost always asks the question, “Have you had a frost yet?”

The temperature here at Meadow Glenn was 38°F. this morning.  I thought there were frost crystals on the roof of our house, but there were no pockets of frosty grass in the low spots of our lawn.  The leaves of the super-sensitive basil in our garden remain bright green, not the drooping black they would be if frost had kissed them good-bye.

Today is October 23, and the 10-day forecast on Weather.Com lists the lowest temperature as 42°F.  Isn’t our first freeze overdue?

The short answer is, “Yes,” but other than from daily observation and recording of temperatures, which I haven’t done, where can I find out when the first freeze will be in the fall and the last freeze will be in the spring in our neighborhood?

After years of wondering, I’ve finally found a good source.  My discovery started last Friday with a posting by the Capital Weather Gang on the Washington Post website: “When should the Washington, D.C., area expect to see its first freeze of the cold season?”

I read their article with increasing interest and began following highlighted links.  One spreadsheet, “List of locations included in the contour map,” contained first-freeze dates for 58 locations here in Maryland—and eight in Delaware, three in New Jersey, three in Pennsylvania, 72 in Virginia, and 18 in West Virginia.

I skimmed down the Maryland list and found Clarksville and Brighton Dam, both of which are about three miles from our home.  The compilation says the average first-freeze date for both locations is October 12.  Since today is October 23, yes, our first freeze is late this year.

Frosted strawberry leaf (Nov. 8, 2007)
The Capital Weather Gang explained that the first-freeze metric is “tricky … and it’s often first elevation dependent, then later (November onwards) dependent on the strength of the cold air mass, and in many cases one’s proximity to water.”

I’d like to add another complication: First-frost may come before first-freeze.  How can that be?   I noticed several years ago that frost often forms in our garden when the official temperature is above freezing by a degree or two.  When I researched that issue, I found that the thermometers used to officially record temperatures generally are located about six feet above ground.  Under certain conditions, the temperature at ground level can be freezing while the official temperature is slightly warmer just a few feet above.

If you are a curious gardener, I recommend that you read the Capital Weather Gang’s posting, and I even more strongly urge you to follow the link to “weather cooperatives through the broader region,” which takes you to the Utah State University website with historical weather information.  When you arrive at the site, you’ll find “Utah” in the box where you are to select a state.  Select Maryland, or another state, from the pull-down list and click Select again, and you’ll find great information for scores of locations.  There are early/average/late dates for both “last spring freeze” and “first fall freeze,” plus short/average/long “freeze-free days,” which you might call the “growing season.”

Here are the dates for our town, Clarksville: “last freeze,” April 14 early, May 4 average, May 22 late.  “First freeze,” Sept. 24 early, Oct. 12 average, Nov. 5 late.  “Freeze-free days,” 138 short, 161 average, 188 long.   I can use that information, for example, to help determine when to start seeds indoors or plant them in the garden—and for spicing up gardening chats: “Well, you know, [clear throat at this point] on the average we should have had a frost on the twelfth.”

Now it’s time for you to explore. To link to the Capital Weather Gang’s posting, CLICK HERE. To link to the Utah State University site to check out spring and fall freeze dates for your town, CLICK HERE.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The last summer harvest

Well, the last harvest of summer plants, anyway (I have some turnips left, and whatever kale the hungry animals getting into my garden leave me).

My pomegranates didn't look entirely ripe, but I harvested them anyway, for fear of frosty nights or hungry squirrels/whatever (I have already found one partially eaten lying on the ground).  I'm very proud that my dwarf pomegranate actually grew, um, dwarf pomegranates (the largest one was about the size of a lacrosse ball).  Now let's see if I can nurse it through the winter outdoors.

Ripe or not, the big one proved to have edible seeds:
And they were tasty, too!  I just ate them as a snack.

The rest of today's harvest can be seen below.  I think we're going to roast some of the green tomatoes and freeze them; I canned them dilled last year and I'm kind of tired of that.  Some of them may ripen indoors.  There is some sorrel in there, and a bunch of small green mystery peppers from the plants I rescued from the compost bin (they were growing in there; possibly seedlings I thought weren't going to make it and tossed?).

What are you still harvesting from your gardens?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Grow It Eat It! does NOT include Groundhogs!

If I could misquote the late, great George Orwell, of 'Animal Farm' fame:

'Two legs good, four legs BAD!!!' (Look it up for today's literary lesson.)

Exhibit A: This is what my fall broccoli looked like after the groundhog got through with it:

Oh, it's too painful - this was a few weeks ago and I've just now gotten the courage to write about it. I know it was a groundhog, because on Saturday morning, when I was leaving to run an errand, he was just finishing up. I chased him under the woodpile (the local critters' favorite hang-out spot). Nicolas and I set out to try to trap the fella, and I thought I'd patched up all the exit holes around the pile except for the one in which we placed the trap. Well...

When I returned from my errand, the trap had been tripped, but guess what - no groundhog. Drat!!!

I reset the trap, knowing it was probably pretty futile. BUT...later on in the week I found the fella munching away in our compost pile (after all, there was no more broccoli to eat). I chased him under the wood pile, and got a little smarter at plugging up holes. Again, I set the trap, pretty sure this time that there was only one way out. I'd even heard the little guy scratching around in there, trying to find an escape. The next morning, I tentatively went out to check the trap. Nope. No groundhog. did he get out? Surely he didn't spend the night in there??? Hmmmmm...

Well, later in the day, I got a call from Nicolas - guess what we got? GROUNDHOG!!!! Safely in the trap. Yay!! Happy ending!!! Joy joy joy!!!

'Two legs good, four legs BAD!!!!!' (rarely a happy ending with groundhogs, is there?)

As it turns out, Nicolas hadn't had time to dispatch the groundhog (calling the local authorities, etc), and so I was going to take care of it all when I got home from work later that day. Guess what? When I got home, all excited, NO GROUNDHOG!!! That little bugger found his way out of the cage! He managed to get one of the clips unclipped and squeezed his not-so-little self out. Oh, woe is me!!!

Again, I was so mad, but what could I do? Now I'll never get him/her. Serves me right, though, because I really should know better than to leave things unprotected. The good news, though, is that I left the broccoli there to see what might happen, and here's what one looks like now:

They're determined to keep on growing (yay!). While the weather will probably get too cold and dark before this guy can grow a head, I'm going to see if I can overwinter it for a spring harvest. I guess that's what gardening is all about, right? Surmounting challenges and making the best of the situation.

As for that pesky groundhog, I haven't seen him since. Nor has he returned to re-eat the newly revived broccoli. I figure he's probably getting ready to hunker down for the winter to prepare for making plenty of groundhog babies next year...

'Two legs good, four legs BAD!!!!!!'

End of Season Reflections on Bitter Gourd

Last year I taste tested bitter gourds prepared a few different ways and it drew so much attention that I found myself writing down recipes that would never have been recorded. Despite all that creativity, I noticed that my family’s behavior and attitude toward this special vegetable remained unchanged. So this summer I grew fewer plants and spoke even less about it.

However, I began sticking it into just about all my meals in small quantities.

Chop up the bitter gourd into fine bits as you would an onion and use in same way as onion, garlic or hot peppers. A few days ago, I threw about 1/3 cup of bitter gourd right into my omelet along with chopped up eggplant, squash, peppers, dried cherry tomatoes, garlic and onion, and no one noticed. Consider adding finely chopped bitter gourd to your quiche, spaghetti sauce, stews, soups, fried rice, lo mein and just about anything else.

Here are pictures and recipes of some of the ways I managed to sneak it into my family’s diet without anyone noticing.

Barley and Garden Veggies

In this preparation, I used Korean Squash, another lovely large crunchy vegetable with a delicate taste, celery, red peppers, green peppers, onion and garlic from the garden, along with shitake mushrooms from the farmers’ market. I sautéed everything, including the finely-chopped bitter gourd, and tossed it all into the pre-cooked barley. I then added some chicken broth (vegetarians could use water or a different broth) and baked it in a low 325 oven until the barley was fully cooked and had absorbed the flavors of the vegetables. No one noticed the presence of bitter gourd.
Chicken Curry
Bitter gourd is typically not hidden in chicken curry in Indian cuisine. However, since my family likes chicken curry, I thought it presented a good opportunity. Here’s one version of a chicken curry that even those who don’t like very spicy food may like.

For this curry, you start by washing your cut up chicken in watered down lemon juice. In a separate bowl, place enough non-fat yoghurt to cover all the chicken and mix in the following powdered spices: coriander, 1tblspn; cumin 1 tspn; chili, ½ tspn; paprika, ½ tspn. Mix the spices into the yoghurt, add chicken, mix well and let sit for about two hours.

Fry together the equivalent of roughly one medium onion or two shallots, about one inch of ginger finely chopped, about six cloves of garlic, finely chopped. This is the place to also add about one cup or more of finely chopped bitter gourd. Sauté well. Then add about 6-10 whole green cardamom pods and 6-10 whole cloves, one 4-inch piece of cinnamon stick, broken into two or three pieces. Continue frying for about two more minutes. Finally, put in the chicken/yoghurt mix and cook gently until the meat is cooked through. Then sprinkle a teaspoon or two of Garam Masala (available at most grocery stores in ethnic food section) and simmer for about 20 minutes. Serve garnished with fresh chopped cilantro. The rich flavors of this curry completely hide the bitterness of the bitter gourd. In the curry pictured above, I also added some celery and a little green pepper from my garden, just in case someone noticed green bits. Any vegetables that are not soggy may be added, such as potato, turnip, carrots, green beans, etc.

Cous Cous
The last recipe is for cous cous. Much like the barley, I simply chopped up whatever I had in the garden—in this version, there is purple and white eggplant, finely chopped green beans (they are tough at this time of year!), green, yellow and red peppers, garlic, onion, and, of course, the bitter gourd. I sautéed everything, added 2.5 cups of chicken broth and brought to boil. Then I sprinkled one cup of cous cous, turned off the flame, closed the dish and let it sit until the cous cous cooked through. This is another family favorite, and no one noticed the bitter gourd.

This year we have consumed far more bitter gourd than we did last year. In fact I have none left to freeze for use in the winter. I’ve had to forego my preference for simply steamed bitter gourd as that tends to draw too much attention to it. However, I have managed to get it into my family's diet, and happily so.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tomato Patch: Time for green manure?

Green manure--or something else?
I’ve bought many bags of composted manure over the years, and when I opened them in our garden, the manure was dark brown.  When I buy a pickup load of composted horse manure and shredded leaves at the Howard County Recycling Center, the compost is, well, dark brown.

So what’s with “green manure”?

“Green manure” is the name often given to plants that overwinter on tilled fields and then are turned under the next spring.  Another term is “cover crop.”  Whichever term you prefer, it has two basic purposes, to enrich the soil and protect it from erosion by winter weather.

The University of Maryland Master Gardener Handbook explains “cover crops” this way in its “Vegetables” chapter:  “Cover crops are mostly small-grain species, like oats, rye, and wheat, and legumes, like clover and vetch. …  These crops are typically planted as early as August 1, but no later than October 10.  They should make some growth before the first hard frost.  Some are killed by cold winter temperature, but most go dormant and resume growth in the spring.  Cover crop roots grow deeply into the soil pulling up nutrients that might otherwise leach out of the soil.  The crops are turned into the soil before going to seed, usually sometime from mid-April to early May.”

A Handbook table lists these typical cover crops with directions about when to plant seed and when to turn the plants under in the spring:  alfalfa, barley, buckwheat, crimson clover, forage radish, spring oats, winter rye, hairy vetch, and winter wheat.

I began thinking about “cover crop” when I tore out the dying vines of Tomato Patch 2011.  Should I plant a cover crop?  Are there alternatives—especially for small, hillside plots that this gardener tills—a youth-challenged gardener, by the way, who is prone to “aching back”?

Thinking I might experiment with a cover crop, I hopped into my Tacoma and drove up to the Southern States farm supply store in Ellicott City, the one place in Howard County that I thought would stock cover-crop seed.

“Do you have seed for any cover crop?”

“Sorry, not today, but next week we’ll be getting in a mixture of rye and wheat.”

“Will it be in bulk?  I only need a few ounces for my garden.”

“The smallest size will be three pounds.”

So much for my Green Manure Experiment.  Back home, I looked at the vineless Tomato Patch and decided on an alternative to a cover crop.  I had mulched our tomato plants in the spring with straw which now was starting to disintegrate and become part of the garden soil, but it is still recognizable as straw.  If I don’t turn it under to hasten decomposition until late winter, it can serve as a “cover crop” to protect garden soil from the ravages of winter storms.

Straw mulch will work
So this winter Tomato Patch is sporting a straw “cover crop” that died in 2010 or earlier and in color is definitely beige, not green.  Will this crop improve the soil?  Little, if any, I suppose, but I think it will do a reasonable job of protecting the soil from the elements.

And as I rearranged the straw to cover as much of the soil as possible, I thought of a very positive outcome of my choice:  the straw will continue to decompose over winter and I’ll have a relatively easy time “turning it under” with my garden shovel in late winter.  Manually turning under a cover crop can be an “ache in the back,” to say nothing of muscle pain.  Score one for the Ancient Gardener.

What else could I have used?

Grass clippings or shredded leaves will do too
Since I don’t have enough straw to spread on all my small hillside garden plots, I protect the soil—and enrich it to some degree—with whatever I have at hand.  I’ve already spread grass clippings on two or three plots—sort of a wimpy “green manure” approach, wouldn’t you say?  When leaves begin to fall, I’ll bag some with our lawn mower and spread the semi-shredded leaves like a brown blanket on other plots, where they’ll also both protect and decompose over winter.

Disappointed that I couldn’t buy a small amount of cover-crop seed locally, I checked availability on the Internet.  Territorial Seed Company has a paragraph explaining cover crops with several links you may enjoy investigating, including one showing varieties of available fall-sown seed.  Johnny’s Selected Seeds also lists a variety of seeds under “green manures.” 

There is one green-manure cover crop I don’t want to grow—winter weeds.  Alas, winter weeds are sprouting everywhere these days and growing rapidly in this extra-warm October.  Today’s chickweed seedlings might protect the soil over winter, but by early spring they will have become thick mats and will have sown thousands of seeds for future crops.

To read the University of Maryland Extension's one-page fact sheet on cover crops, CLICK HERE.  If you’re a new reader, check out earlier postings about Barbara Billek, who uses hairy vetch as a cover crop in her raised vegetable beds, and Susan Levy-Goerlich, who uses shredded leaves to protect her garlic crop over winter. 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Drink your hibiscus and eat your dahlias

For Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day I promised some flowers, so here we go.

 This (as the sign says) is Hibiscus sabdariffa, or Roselle, a hibiscus with small but lovely flowers and edible leaves.  The flower buds are used to make drinks.  They're usually dried (sometimes only the calyces are preserved) and then steeped; if you buy any herbal tea that has hibiscus in it, this is what you're getting.

I picked the last flower buds this week (the plant was beginning to suffer from the cold nights).  Here they are posing with an Aji Limon pepper.

Steeping a handful of fresh buds in hot water for five minutes or so produced... pale pink water.  So I left them in the teapot longer... and then longer... and finally overnight.  Eventually I had something that looked like a real drink.

The flavor wasn't strong, but it did have a mild sweetness and tartness.  I think I will try drying the remaining buds to see if something stronger and quicker to prepare might result.  More experimentation is called for, next year - I'll definitely be growing this plant again, because for one thing, it's pretty.

One of our biggest successes this year, flower-wise, was Unwin's Dwarf dahlias - MG Madgie started these for us from seed this spring, and they were blooming as early as late June.

Here's one of the resulting flowers - they also came in varying shades of red, pink and yellow, and varying amounts of doubleness.  They framed one of our tomato beds - still do, in fact, even though the tomatoes have been pulled up.  We'll dig up the dahlias next week, perhaps (or the week after; I hate to disturb something that's doing so well, and there's no frost in the forecast yet).  I'm sure I can get volunteers to store the tubers inside over the winter, and then some of them can go back into the garden next year.

But a few of the tubers -- we should eat!!  Yes, dahlia tubers are edible, as are the flower petals.  Can't say I've tried them yet myself, but I will do so and report back.  They are supposed to taste rather like Jerusalem artichokes (and are related to them).  Here's an article by William Woys Weaver on growing and eating dahlias.  It's probably best to eat the tubers from the plants whose flowers you least liked, and save the other ones for planting.  I'm going to have a hard time choosing...

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Mushroom madness: What lurks below?

One of the byproducts of all the rain we’ve had this year—more than 13 inches above average to date in this area—is that mushrooms are popping up here, there, and just about everywhere in our gardens and lawns.  The photos with this posting are some of the mushrooms growing here at Meadow Glenn.

So if I have mushrooms growing in our own yard, why did I stop by the Giant Food store to buy two handfuls of two kinds of mushrooms?  You know the answer: mushrooms are notoriously difficult to identify.  An edible variety may look nearly identical to its poisonous relative. A deer or squirrel may eat one, but it might kill you.

In his “Gardening” column in Thursday’s Post, Adrian Higgins took a look at some common wild mushrooms and explained why wise gardeners leave picking them to the experts. 

Higgins also taught me something about the “leviathan” that lurks below the mushroom that pops up in our garden:  “Here’s the thing about the mushroom.  It is merely the fruiting body of a much larger and permanent organism that lives beneath the soil.  It is akin to the flower of a plant, dispersing its seed.  I like to think of a mushroom as the dorsal fin of some great whale that lives in the depths.  It flashes, it is gone, the leviathan passes from our consciousness, but it is still there.”

If you’re curious about the mushrooms growing in your garden or lawn, take a few minutes to read Higgins’ article, “Beneath the planet of the mushrooms,” and look at the photo illustrations.  CLICK HERE.

And remember to leave wild mushroom harvesting to the experts.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


This year in the demo garden we grew one of my favorite vegetables, celeriac (also known as celery root or turnip-rooted celery).  It's a form of celery grown for the knobby root, though the leaves and stems are also edible (best in soup, though).  Here's a huge one we harvested yesterday:

It's about five inches across, and may end up being a little woody.  The one I took home last week, a bit smaller, was delicious, though.  I prepared it very simply, first peeling off the rough exterior of the bulb, and then cutting it into bite-sized pieces (you can pop them into salted water as you cut, to stop discoloration).  Boiled the pieces until tender, and then did a quick saute in olive oil and lemon juice.

Celeriac is also good raw, particularly paired with medium-tart apples in a salad, or cooked till soft and pureed, perhaps with some butter and seasonings.  Yum.  The flavor is like celery but with a mellower feel, sort of like the difference between turnip greens and turnip root, but with none of the bitterness either of those can have.

The plant is easy to grow, though it does take a long season to mature.  I started my plants inside in early April, just to get a head start, and planted them out late in the month - and here we are harvesting in October, though September would have done.  No pest problems to speak of; even the rabbits didn't bother them.  They do need to be watered, but excessive heat doesn't seem to affect the growth or flavor.

The other form of celery we grew was cutting celery (also called soup celery), grown mainly for the leaves, as an herb or flavoring.  Those plants succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, and now have hollow stems thick enough to be called regular old stem celery, although they haven't been blanched (usually, growing celery for the stems, you have to either pile up soil on the growing plants or grow them between boards to keep the stems white and tender).  I find them quite edible nonetheless, good for snacking on in the garden.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Tomato Patch: Last pickings

The end is near
The diseased leaves and vines of Tomato Patch 2011 told me it was time to pick the last of this year’s tomatoes and tear out the nearly dead plants—three or four weeks before I usually do this sad job.

I describe the job as a sad one because I just plain hate to see the tomato season end.  When we cut the last red fruit that we’ve harvested from the Tomato Patch, we get that nearly hopeless feeling that we’re left with those red “things” we will not be even tempted to buy at the super market until our memories of our mouth-watering home-grown tomatoes fades with our memories of this year’s autumn leaves.

I tore out the dying vines over three days, a couple of hours here, a couple of hours there.  The first day I picked about 20 big-reds, mostly at breaker stage or beyond, that I thought had a reasonable chance to ripen in our garage, and I took down the cages that had supported the vines.  The second day I picked a half colander of little-reds and then removed their cages too.

Last of the big reds
On the third day I pulled out all the plants and wheel-barrowed them to a “compost” pile near the edge of our woods.  Since the vines were diseased, I had no thought other than to remove them completely from our vegetable garden.  Next year I will plant tomatoes in a totally different area of our garden in order to minimize disease carry-over from this year.

My experience with ripening end-of-season tomatoes is that those with cracks around the stem are much more likely to spoil before fully ripening, so most of the fruit I moved into the garage were small Brandywines and the other varieties with few cracks—Celebrities and Juliets.

A week after moving the last tomatoes into the garage, I can report that the extra-warm temperatures of the second week of October 2011 are causing them to ripen rapidly, and I have to check them every day to make sure we eat them before they spoil.  

Last of the little reds
Even though I picked the last of this year’s tomatoes and pulled up the vines, I’m not ready to write “The End” to Tomato Patch 2011.  I have a few chores yet to do, and in future postings I’ll show you what I do.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Stink Bugs: Chainsaw 128, Peach Trees 0

Stink bugs on my tomato
Stink bugs this year destroyed most of Frank Gouin’s peach crop, so Frank’s going to take his chainsaw to his 128 peach trees.

Is that an overreaction to the stink-bug invasion?

Adrian Higgins, the Washington Post’s “On Gardening” columnist, told Frank story in Thursday’s edition.  Frank is a horticulturist who has tended his orchard from Day One 20 years ago, when he started rootstock from seed and the next year grafted buds of his chosen varieties onto the rootstock seedlings.  He’s been a realistic peach grower who been spraying his crop every 10 to 14 days to manage all sorts of pests and diseases.

And then came the stink bugs.  In 2009 Frank lost about two percent of his crop.  Last year he lost 10 percent.  This year he lost 60 percent. 

Higgins wrote:  “Scientists are working hard to find a natural predator for the bug, but for Gouin, time has run out.  After a lifetime of dealing with and beating pests, he is calling it quits.  This winter, he will take a chainsaw to his 128 peach trees.”

And Frank isn’t alone.  Recently one of my gardening friends announced, “I’ve had it.  The stink bugs have destroyed everything.  I’m not going to plant a tomato next year.”  Others have told me that stink bugs have taken all the enjoyment and satisfaction out of vegetable gardening.

What to do, what to do, what to do?  Fruit and grain growers face huge, if not potentially catastrophic, challenges.  We consumers may see higher food prices and have new questions about pesticide residues in our food.

I haven’t surrendered.  My tomato yield improved significantly this year because I periodically used a commercially available garden spray that kept the stink bugs largely, but not totally, off my growing tomatoes.  I’m learning to share a little and don’t mind a few “pin pricks” or “dimples” or other evidence of stink-bug feeding on my tomatoes.

Please “take five” to read Adrian Higgins’ article about Frank Gouin and its short sidebar, “Beating the stink bugs.”  CLICK HERE.

You see that bright thing in the sky?

It's called the sun.  Remember that?  Don't look right at it.

The disappointing (to me, at least) 2011 vegetable growing season is gurgling to a close.  At the Derwood Demo Garden, we are not yet finished working, but we'll be cleaning up over the next month (fall and winter gardening is great, don't get me wrong, but try getting volunteers to show up once a week in January).  Our big event of the year, the Harvest Festival, was rained out Saturday - some intrepid folks came out to enjoy the farm in the chilly rain (the Italian ice truck was not mobbed, though I think hot cider and roasted chestnuts did pretty well), but the Master Gardeners left en masse about 1:30 to go home and thaw.

It's lovely now, of course, and we did get some work done Tuesday, including harvesting.  Not post-mortem time for everything yet, but I can tell you pretty much what didn't do well (I have probably complained about that ad nauseum already) and what did... well, let's be positive.  All the edible gourds did well, the cucuzzis at least until Irene did them in; bitter gourd and luffa are still producing.  We had, as usual, a wonderful sweet potato crop:

Barbara Knapp harvests her sweet potatoes

On the other hand, potatoes were very disappointing, though if we'd harvested in July when they were ready, they would have been okay - keeping them in the ground, which we do just to accommodate the Festival, did not work out this time due to all that rain.  Most of the potatoes rotted, and many sprouted and grew new plants.

Phaseolus beans - i.e. regular green beans, dried beans, and limas, from the Americas - are producing now but did poorly over the summer.  African and Asian Vigna beans, cowpeas and long beans, have done very well.  We also have a nice crop of mung beans coming along, though I don't know if they will have time to mature and dry on the plant (started them late).  Also started late and not likely to mature completely, the sorghum, shown here next to its African neighbor cowpeas:

At least the sorghum is still alive, unlike its relative popcorn, a total bust (stink bugs and weather, as well as a poorly-selected location between Jerusalem artichokes and sunflowers).

Carrots did well this year, despite rabbits chewing on the greens, and now that the harlequin bugs seem to have vanished, the few fall greens that germinated in all that rain should produce nicely.  I have a fantastic crop of cutting celery, which has now formed stalks thick and tender enough to qualify as snacking celery, at least that's what I was doing Tuesday.  And we also had some beautiful celeriac, grown for its bulb.  Also some lettuce, and a bumper crop of upland cress.

Malabar spinach on left, hyacinth beans right
As usual, the Malabar spinach grew fast and thick in the hot days of late summer, even though it got off to a slower start than usual:

And as always we had plenty of mouse melons!  We also had success with several useful flower crops, but I'll wait for Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day to post about those.

So, some real successes, some significant disappointments.  Time to regroup, think about how to do better next year (assuming that there will be horrible weather and lots of pests), and reread the late great Henry Mitchell:

Now the gardener is the one who has seen everything ruined so many times that (even as his pain increases with each loss) he comprehends - truly knows - that where there was a garden once, it can be again, or where there never was, there yet can be a garden so that all who see it say, "Well, you have favorable conditions here. Everything grows for you." Everything grows for everybody. Everything dies for everybody, too.

There are no green thumbs or black thumbs. There are only gardeners and non-gardeners. Gardeners are the ones who ruin after ruin get on with the high defiance of nature herself, creating, in the very face of her chaos and tornado, the bower of roses and the pride of irises.
And the pride of beans and tomatoes, too!  Next year we'll have them, perfect and in abundance... defying stink bugs and hurricanes along the way.

Happy October!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Smarter Food: New Washington Post series

School gardens & nutrition education = fresh, local ingredients to school fare.  To read “The pizza starts here,” by Jane Black in today’s Food Section of the Washington Post, CLICK HERE.