Sunday, November 27, 2011

Winter crop that never fails

Rutabagas ... eaten
Thanksgiving guests have long since departed.  We’ve just about liberated all leftovers from our refrigerator.  It’s now time to turn my attention to our vegetable garden.

Not much that I planted remains to harvest.  I pulled the last of our rutabagas for a simple Thanksgiving side dish—boiled rutabaga mashed with butter and a little salt.  I didn’t have an answer when a guest asked, “Why are your rutabagas so good when the ones I buy at the store are so strong and even bitter?”  I guess I could have answered, “Well, I grew them 20 feet from our kitchen door and pulled them an hour before I cooked them.”

I do have a short row or two of Cylindra beets to pull for another early-winter treat.  I’ll simply boil them and anoint them with a pat or two of butter.  Late-season Red Sails lettuce continues to grow in my “Cheap Greenhouse”—the experiment I’ll report on when this warm fall turns into frigid winter.  Drum roll … How long will the lettuce plants grow before they surrender to the cold?

Yes, a few vegetables that I planted still are growing.  But other plants that I don’t want are growing larger every day, seemingly doubling in size when the temperatures zip into the 50s and 60s.  Those plants are winter weeds.

Winter weeds ... flourishing
Every garden likely has some winter weeds that sprout in late fall and grow rapidly during warm fall and winter days.  I used to ignore them and turn them under on sunny February days, but some, especially chickweed, would be so thick and tangled that it was easier to roll them up like green rugs and toss them over the back fence.

But I’ve found a better way to control winter weeds.  From Thanksgiving until garden soil freezes solid and when I have 15 minutes or a half hour on a sunny day, I take my weeding hoe and make mayhem on winter weeds.  I decapitate them just below soil level, roll most of the soil off any roots with backstrokes of my hoe, and hope the sun dries the roots and kills the weeds.

I don’t stoop and pull weeds, generally, because that gives me an Aching Back.  My goal isn’t a garden without a visible weed.  I hoe the biggest weeds first, especially those that are blooming—and if I miss some, I attack them the next time I hoe.

Weeding hoe ... to the rescue
So my small, hillside veggie plots are not weed free, though some are nearly so.  And each week that passes more will be browner and less green.  When the sun begins to warm in February and the topsoil thaws a bit, I’ll be out there, a few minutes now and then, with my hoe.

This short, periodic hoeing helps me keep weeds under control.  I no longer have to stoop and roll green mats in early spring or struggle to turn the mats under with a shovel.  My Aching Back aches less, and if a few weeds still grow in March, I’ll turn them under with my shovel.

Now that you’re rested up from your Thanksgiving extravaganza, move your weeding hoe from your shed to your garage.  On the next sunny day put on a light jacket or an extra shirt and grab your hoe and do a little winter weeding.  Take a few deep breaths of the cool, crisp air, and hoe, hoe, hoe.

And while you’re working, think through your plans for Veggie Garden 2012—what you might plant and where.  Perhaps you’ll even smile and plan the perfect answer when someone asks you what you’d really like for a holiday gift:  “Well, I’d really like a high-quality, narrow-bladed weeding hoe.” That would be so much better than another necktie or box of chocolates, now wouldn’t it?

Hoe, hoe, hoe.

Extra:  To read Patterson Clark’s “Urban Jungle” feature, “Wrestling with winter’s weeds,” in the Washington Post (Nov. 22), CLICK HERE.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thankful for salad tables!

We had home-grown salad for Thanksgiving dinner this year, thanks to a salad table in a sheltered spot just outside the back door, a wood-and-chicken-wire cover to protect plants from squirrels, and an old sheet to throw over it on frosty nights.  When I remember to.

We also ate the last of the home-grown tomatoes, though I decided not to put them in the salad because after ripening from fully green they were still kind of hard inside, like winter supermarket tomatoes but without the perfect skin.  So I cut them up and stewed them and then added them to a side dish of mushrooms and onions.  They softened up fine, and added a rich flavor to the dish.

While cooking I snacked on the last of the roasted seeds from a Marina di Chioggia squash we got for a Halloween decoration (those little gourds? Vanished the next day for a squirrel's lunch) and later turned into soup.

It had the biggest seeds I've ever seen in a squash or pumpkin (pumpkins are squash, of course).  They took a long time to roast and were still very chewy, but tasty.  (My roasting method: clean the seeds as best you can, boil in salted water for about 10 minutes, then spread on a tray, mix with oil and seasonings, and bake at 375-400 (depending on seed size) for as long as it takes to get them crisp but not burnt.  Try 10 minutes to start and then check every 5 minutes, giving them a good stir.  When done, leave them in the cooling oven for a while and then turn out on a towel (one you can wash).  Do not store in plastic or they'll get soft again.)

We had what I think was a Red Kuri squash for Thanksgiving, cut up and steamed, then roasted with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and honey.  I roasted those seeds too, but they were too tough to eat - unusually thick for squash seeds, almost gourd-like except much bigger.

I'm thankful to be able to grow some of my own dinner and buy the rest (from farmer's markets in part).  Hope you enjoyed your holiday meal and have leftovers to munch on!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

I'm thankful he lifted me over the fence

Is a child watching?
“What do you think they are?” asked Mr. Rau as he lifted me high enough to peer into his rain barrel.  I must have been five or six years old, and Mr. Rau was our next-door neighbor on Main Street, Alloway, New Jersey.

My eyes focused on several living and moving things just below the waterline in the oak barrel.  I had no idea what they were.

“They’re mosquito larvae,” Mr. Rau explained.

That encounter took place at least 65 years ago.  Mr. and Mrs. Rau—I never would have thought to call them Carl and Mary—welcomed my daily visits.  At first Mr. Rau lifted me over the fence that separated our yards.  Later I learned how to climb over myself.  Mr. Rau called me “Farmer.”

“Yes, sir, you’ll always be Farmer Nixon,” Mr. Rau chucked as he puffed on his pipe years later when I visited as an adult.  “Mrs. Rau and I had a good laugh when we looked out the kitchen window one January day and saw you planting seeds.  You were having a tough time with your gloves on, your thick Mackinow coat, your hat, the packet of seeds, and a trowel.  But the next summer that bed produced the best crop of zinnias we’d ever seen.”

I’m sure I had zero skills for growing great zinnias.  In fact, as I recall those early years, I realize I was the learner and Mr. Rau taught me important principles of good gardening just by practicing them and letting me watch and help.

Mr. Rau’s rain barrel:  The rain barrel sat at the corner of the Rau home closest to their large garden.  The rotund oak barrel sat on several bricks, and Mr. Rau bored an overflow hole near the top and built a wooden top with handle.  He painted the exterior white to match their house but hadn’t thought of installing a screen at the top to keep out the infamous Jersey ‘skeeters or a spigot near the bottom. Rain water Mr. Rau used from the barrel meant he didn’t have to pump water from his well.

Mr. Rau’s drip irrigation system:  Mr. Rau would be fascinated by today’s simple and inexpensive drip irrigation systems, but he made do with the simple materials he had at hand.  I used to watch him dig-in clay flower pots between his tomato plants and fill them with buckets of water from the rain barrel during summer droughts. Today I place five-gallon plastic buckets with holes drilled in the bottoms in my Tomato Patch.

Mr. Rau’s pole limas:  In post-World War II years when nearly every backyard in Alloway still contained a vegetable garden, Mr. Rau often commented that other gardeners—especially Mr. Bowling just a few houses closer to the center of town—were trying to see who would grow the best pole lima beans.

Beans are beans, I suppose, to most modern shoppers, but pole limas were the prized vegetable in South Jersey gardens in those days.  They’re notoriously temperamental.  If the weather is too wet or cold, the seeds may rot before sprouting.  And when they grow, sometimes they produce a huge harvest—and sometimes little or none.

I used to watch Mr. Rau set up his two rows of bean poles in late spring.  He used a heavy, pointed steel bar to make holes every four feet for the cedar poles that were all approximately the same size.  He’d plant hills of lima seeds around each pole.  Then he’d string binder twine across the tops of the poles and in huge Xs between them.  As the plants grew, he’d guide them along the twine.

Growing limas took lots of work, time, patience, and good weather, but near the end of the growing season the rewards were mouth watering, a “mess of limer beans,” as a visitor from New York City once joked, or one of the signature dishes of South Jersey cookery, lima bean potpie.  Lima bean potpie also was work intensive, but I’ll not detour there.

Planting onion sets:  One early-spring day I watched over the fence as Mr. Rau worked in his khaki shirt and pants in his garden in early spring.  I climbed over for a closer look.

“What are you doing, Mr. Rau?”

“Planting onions, Farmer.”

“Can I help?”

“Do you know how to plant onions?”


“Well, watch what I do.  First, take a set from the paper bag. … Put the round end down in the row I’ve made with the hoe. … Put the next set down about here. …”

Mr. Rau took my small left hand and placed it between the two sets he had placed in the row.
“See,” he said, “that’s how you do it—one set every five fingers.”

I must have finished planting the onions in a reasonably acceptable way because Mr. Rau didn’t redo them before he carefully hoed soil up around them.  When he had finished, he said, “Here, Farmer,” and placed a dime into my dusty hand.

I can’t recall whether I climbed over or flew over the fence on my way home, but I remember yelling as I ran into the house, “Mom!  Look!  A dime!  Mr. Rau gave me a dime!”  Ten cents then was enough to buy two huge single-dip ice-cream cones at Ewen’s General Store or Dunham’s Market, the two small groceries at town center.

Thank you, Carl G. Rau, 1893-1971, for lifting me over the fence and letting me learn by helping in your garden.

Is a child watching as you work in your garden?  Lift him or her over the fence into the fascinating world of gardening.

Tiller radish = improved soil

Ray Weil, a professor and soil scientist at UM, and his graduate students study and promote tiller radish as a fall cover crop for farmers and gardeners. Here's a photo of tiller radish (a.ka. forage radish or Daikon radish) interplanted with oats at the Central Maryland Research and Education Center in Clarksville.
The large white storage roots grew to 8 inches in just 6 weeks-7 weeks. The radish roots "bio-drill" the soil which opens up large pore spaces and improves the structure of soils high in clay. soil structure. Both crops are killed by freezing temperatures leaving a mat of dead plant residues that help suppress weed growth in spring. The radishes decompose rapidly leaving behind large pore spaces that increase air and water movement and biological activity, resulting in better root and plant growth next season.
Two caveats: the tillage radish can provide a comfy late-season home for the harlequin bugs you battled on your fall kale, mustard, and broccoli. And if you plant a large area to these radishes you and your neighbors may detect a sulfur aroma as radishes rot in the soil. Still, this is an exciting new cover crop to try spring or fall.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thank you, Master Gardeners, for sharing

When I unfolded the Washington Post Business section this morning, huge headlines proclaimed, “Food in the bank: When a pantry had to shut its doors, the public came to the rescue.”  And then one of the many subheads caught my attention:  “2,500 lbs. of produce/Donated in a week by Master Gardener volunteers in Dale City.”

Thank you, Master Gardeners, for sharing more than a ton of your bounty.  You make me proud.

The Post article described the plight of a food pantry in northern Virginia, but Master Gardeners in Maryland and many other states either personally or as a group contribute some of their fruits and vegetables to community organizations that help those in need.  If you personally or as part of the Master Gardener program contribute your produce, please post a Comment about how you share.  You may encourage others to do likewise next gardening year.

To read the short Post article, CLICK HERE.

If you’re a Maryland gardener and want some ideas about how you can share extra produce, CLICK HERE to check out the "Grow It Share It" information page.

Change of subject:  A “Recap” from page 2 of the Business section:  “USDA said sales of ‘local foods,’ sold at farmers markets or through grocers or restaurants, amounted to $4.8 billion in 2008—several times greater than earlier estimates—and it predicts sales will grow to $7 billion this year.”

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Damrosch on ‘earth vegetables’

Buried treasure
Here’s a link to Barbara Damrosch, “A Cook’s Garden” columnist in the Washington Post, on “What on earth? Winter’s buried treasure”—“earth vegetables,” as she calls them, that make good winter food and can be stored in the ground, in a root cellar, or even “a garbage can or large picnic cooler sunk into the ground.”  CLICK HERE.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Reflections on Tomatoes, 2011

Article by Sabine Harvey, Kent County:

Which tomatoes performed best during this challenging season? Between the Victory Garden at Kent County Middle School and my home garden, I planted 9 different varieties. At the Victory Garden, we covered one bed with red plastic mulch and one with straw.

The first observation is that the bed with the plastic mulch did indeed do a lot better, as the experts claim, than the bed covered with mulch. In fact, by the middle of September, the vines in the bed with the red plastic mulch were still doing okay, whereas several plants in the other bed had died already.

Now for the cultivars: as always Celebrity Hybrid and Early Pick performed steadily and well. They both produce nice size tomatoes. They start early and they keep going after other tomatoes are done.

I have never liked beefsteak tomatoes but I thought I should give them a try. After this season I must say, I still don’t like beefsteak tomatoes! First of all, they took forever to turn red; not just in my gardens, but this was a complaint all over the county. Secondly, they take so long to grow that between the hot temperatures, downpours and insects, we actually did not harvest many edible tomatoes of these plants. Sure, the ones that we did get were gigantic, but I think over the entire season they produced a lot less than other plants.

Heirlooms. We tried three different varieties: Amish Paste, Mr. Stripy (like Striped Zebra) and Black Krim. I wish I had something good to say, but Mr. Stripy and Black Krim were an absolute bust. The tomatoes went from not ripe to rotting in no time, or they started to rot before they were ripe. They also seem to have been the favorites of all the critters that like to munch on tomatoes. Since heirlooms don’t have much disease resistance, the plants got sick fairly early in the season.

As for the Amish Paste the verdict might still be out. The plant in the bed with the straw died in mid July. The plant in the bed with the red plastic was still doing pretty well by mid September. The problem with this plant was that the bottom part of the tomatoes would be very ripe, while the top part stayed green. Eventually we got all red tomatoes, but that was at about the same time that it didn’t stop raining: all the tomatoes cracked severely.

Maybe it is just me! So far I have not grown a paste tomato that does well. If you have grown paste/roma tomatoes successfully, I would love to get some suggestions!

Big Boy/Better Boy. They both seemed to perform pretty well, all things considered. Perhaps Better Boy did a little bit better, but there was not much of a difference.

Long Keeper. This plant produces tomatoes that you can keep in your house for a long time. The tomatoes are a nice small size and there were a lot of them. The problem is the taste, in particular the skin. I guess you can save these tomatoes longer because they have a really thick skin, kind of unpleasant. To an extent, these tomatoes reminded me of the ones you buy in the store. So, although the plant performed well , I am not sure I will plant it again.

I had two more varieties in my own garden: Tomosa and Juliet. I have grown Tomosa for three years now and I SO want to like this plant. It makes beautiful 4 oz tomatoes, it produces early in the season, then it slows down and keeps producing until frost. What is not to like? Well, it is more suitable for a European climate and ultimately I am not sure it can really withstand the high humidity and crazy rain. I did not harvest an edible tomato of this plant since early August. When it is happy, it makes great tomatoes. The question is, is it happy here?

Last but not least, Juliet. Yes, I did save the best for last. This is a keeper!!! This is a grape tomato, recommended by our state Master Gardener, Jon Traunfeld. Well, obviously Jon was right! The tomatoes are about twice the size of a cherry tomato and they are possibly the sweetest tomato I have ever eaten. The vine produced all summer long, but not in the overwhelming crazy way that a cherry tomato does. It was still producing beautiful tomatoes in October! This variety was the success of the season; it will become a regular in my garden!

Now I am curious whether you grew any tomatoes at home this year. If so, do you have any observations/recommendations you would like to share? I would love some suggestions for next year.

Sabine Harvey

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Prize-winning summer camp

Just want to share that our own Anne Arundel County Master Gardeners won third place in the 2011 Search for Excellence Innovative Project competition at the International Master Gardener Conference in October, for their Grow It Eat It Summer Camps.  Go AA MGs!

Read about it here.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Your favorite vegetable cookbooks!

Nowadays it seems that if I have a vegetable ingredient and I want to find a recipe to use it, I can just do a search on the Internet and find a dozen interesting possibilities in five minutes.  However, there's still something about having an actual cookbook on hand that I can bring into the kitchen and spill on, and that I can trust because I've tried the author's recipes.

Let's share in the comments.  Do you still use printed cookbooks, or are you all about the web?  What's your favorite cookbook for vegetable recipes?  Do you have a favorite recipe from that book?  Is there a blog or website you prefer for online recipes?

I'll start.  It's hard to choose, but the cookbook I turn to most when I'm trying to use up garden produce is Marian Morash's The Victory Garden Cookbook, an adjunct to the old PBS show.  It's organized by primary ingredient, so you can look under spinach and find all the ways to use it, from the simple to the complex, with suggestions for other leafy greens that might substitute.  Probably my favorite recipe is Sweet Potato-Chocolate Cake, a marbled bundt-pan cake with cooked and pureed sweet potato all through the batter, half of which is flavored with melted chocolate.  I will probably make this for our annual MG holiday party (unless I make chocolate-covered pomegranate seeds.  Any MoCo MGs dropping by can vote).

Alas, it is out of print, but used copies can be found - Bookfinder tells me it can be had for as little as $16.41.  Or you could check libraries.

You're next!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Crunchy tubers: yacon and dahlia

Apologies in advance: this post contains some of the most boring photos ever. :)

I mentioned in a previous post that I was going to harvest dahlia tubers and eat them after the frost.  I also may have mentioned at some point in the past that we were growing yacon at the demo garden.  Here it is:

Yacon is a relative of sunflowers, and of Jerusalem artichokes, which also produce edible storage tubers, and in fact of dahlias.  They are all native to the Americas and have all been known as food sources for centuries.

If this plant had been given a slightly longer growing season, it might have flowered, but yacon does not produce viable pollen or seeds (it must have, once, but has now been cultivated into a non-seeding type) and so must be propagated by dividing of the root crown.  (Plants don't grow from the tubers.)  I was given this crown by one of our MGs last year, stored it in a cool room over the winter buried in peat moss, and planted it out in May when it had sprouted.

After digging up this plant (it's not hardy here) I have some good crown material to store and plant next year, and also got a few tubers (next year's crop should be better).

They are easily cleaned with a scrubbing brush, and don't have to be peeled.  They can be cooked, but for my first time eating yacon I wanted to try it raw - and loved it!  Crisp like a water chestnut, slightly sweet and FULL of water: very refreshing.

You can kind of see the water beading out of the tuber slices.

For more about growing and eating yacon (you just knew I'd have a William Woys Weaver article, didn't you?) click here and for storage information here.

Next, the dahlias.  Here's a dahlia root with tubers attached.  This one's from my garden; we dug a large number out of the demo garden last week, and those are in storage for next year's garden.  Again, you can store them in peat moss in a cool place above freezing.

Edited to add: here's a timely post on the topic from our MG friends in Franklin County PA. With a shout-back to us, how nice!
Here's what the tubers look like cleaned and sliced.  I found these, eaten raw, a little less pleasing than the yacon - not as refreshing and more fibrous, with a slightly harsh spiciness.  But they are still quite edible and I like them better than I do Jerusalem artichokes.

Here's the article I cited last time for growing and serving information.

My advice?  If you can get hold of a yacon crown and have a little space (the plants get 3-4 feet tall), try it, especially if you like crisp, sweet, water explosions in your salad.  If you already grow dahlias and don't want to store the tubers, or have one with flowers you don't like, then eat those tubers too.  I think next year's flowers may be a better bet, though.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Fruit salsa

I made a tomato and fruit salsa that was a big hit with my fellow MGs yesterday, so even though I didn't note exact quantities while preparing it, I thought I'd share the Sort-Of Recipe.

The tomatoes were from my garden: I picked them green before the frost and they've been ripening nicely indoors since.  A mixture of colors is attractive for this; I used about 3 medium red and 2 medium yellow.  Cut out any hard and nasty bits; dice the tomatoes and put them in a colander to drain.  If you have a choice, the firmer-fleshed tomatoes are better, but don't worry about skinning and seeding.

Chop one small red onion (or a portion of a larger one) into little bits (everything is in little bits here).  Add in a diced mango, two diced kiwifruit, and a few slices of canned pineapple, diced.  That's what I had to use; other soft fruits such as peaches would do as well.  Apples, though seasonal, are problematically crunchy, but you could try them.  Pears might work.  I also threw in the spoonful of pomegranate seeds I collected from my remaining wee pomegranates.

Mix everything together, add what you like in the way of hot peppers, chopped very small (I used four fish peppers, and I could have used more, but didn't want to offend the taste buds of anyone I was serving to).  Then add a tablespoon or two of lime juice and another tablespoon of a light vinegar (white wine, champagne, or rice), some pepper (I used a lemon pepper blend), salt if you wish, and whatever quantity of cilantro you want if you like it.  (I didn't have any fresh, so I used a few frozen mini-cubes, thawed.)  Let it sit and marinate in the fridge for a few hours to overnight, and then transfer to a serving container with a slotted spoon, so you leave excess liquid behind.

I served it with chips as a buffet item, but it would also be good on chicken or vegetables.

Any hot peppers to your taste will do for this (or sweet peppers if you really don't like heat), but I do love fish peppers for their beauty as well as their flavor.  You'll be hearing a lot more about them here in the next year!  Here's a photo I took a couple of years ago of my fish pepper harvest:

Yes, all those colors on one plant at once!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

How gardeners watch TV

screenshot by ABC
Last night I checked out the first two episodes of the new ABC show "Once Upon a Time," about fairy tale characters with amnesia living in a small Maine town.  It's quite fun, but I couldn't help noting, when Evil Queen/Mayor Regina brings a basket of apples to Emma's door, and claims they are from her Honeycrisp tree, that they look a lot more like Red Delicious.

And the tree is suspiciously pristine-looking; and I wouldn't wear that outfit in Maine in September or October when either of those apple varieties would be ripe.

Please tell me I'm not the only gardener who watches plants on the small or big screen.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Summer Jean, in autumn

In the category of "vegetables I will definitely grow again" - this is a Brassica rapa cultivar bought under the name "Summer Jean" (it looks to me like a sort of Chinese broccoli, and Johnny's no longer sells seeds by that name, so buy what you can find, I guess).  Despite the warm-season moniker, it is a spring and fall vegetable, and I'm voting for fall, though like most fall vegetables it is a pain to germinate in August.

Anyway, what I like about it is that you can eat the whole plant - the thicker parts of the stem require some real cooking, but the rest can be braised or stir-fried quickly: leaves, broccoli-like florets, and even the yellow flowers that result when you only visit your plants once a week.  The florets are so yummy I couldn't stop snacking on them in the garden - they lack the bitterness this sort of plant acquires in the spring, and are really quite sweet.  Perhaps not trick-or-treater sweet, but pretty close in their own way.

Here it is in place with some misome and not much else.  We have achieved fall clean-up!  What miracles a team of Master Gardeners, some wheelbarrows and newspaper, and a truckload of donated Leafgro can accomplish!

Also, isn't this radicchio pretty?  I just thought I'd throw that one in.

Enjoy your November gardens, whatever's left of them!