Wednesday, December 19, 2012

2012 Derwood Demo Garden wrap-up

I should probably post this before 2012 is over!

Overall, we had a good year in the vegetable beds of the Derwood Demo Garden in Montgomery County, MD.  Our main focus for the year was to produce a successful harvest of certain crops (beans, cucumbers, melons, squash, tomatoes, leafy greens) while, as always, trying out a few new plants.  Here's a quick summary of what went well and what didn't, and why.


We grew a lot of beans this year, with a good success rate overall.  Our most exciting bush bean was Provider, which has the advantage of being moderately cold-hardy, so we could get the seed started in mid-April and take advantage of the short-term but heavy crops before Mexican bean beetles moved in big-time.  Then we had time for another crop to harvest in fall.  We also got good production from Blue Lake, both bush and pole, the latter somewhat affected by bean beetles, Japanese beetles, and BMSBs, but not badly enough to limit the crop much.

I'm also still very fond of Masai bush beans, which produce quickly and fairly heavily on extra small plants.  And our purple pole beans were lovely and moderately productive.


Tomatoes produced very well until mid-August when the BMSBs moved in.  After that, we harvested barely a tomato worth eating.  An early-season experiment with covering plants with a lightweight mesh had to be discontinued when the plants outgrew the size of the fabric (note: do this with smaller plants next time) and started showing damage due to shading and overcrowding.  Then the stink bugs got 'em.  We participated in a stink bug trap trial that I believe has been judged not to be a success - at least in our case, we seemed to have more bugs on the plants near the trap than elsewhere.


I'm going to lump cucumbers, melon and squash together because none of them did very well.  We made an attempt to distract cucumber beetles by planting cucumbers in a bed with many herbs and flowering plants, which, um, were a little too aggressive and overwhelmed the cucumbers (which showed signs of bug damage anyway).  I am planning to give County Fair another trial next year, since it is supposed to be resistant to bacterial wilt spread by cucumber beetles.

Another experiment using reflective mulch under the cucumber plants to confuse the bugs wasn't much of a success either; it may have helped in the early stages, but once the plants grow tall it has no impact, and the bugs just keep coming all season.  (Covering plants in young stages is ineffective for the same reason.)  We'll keep working on the cucumber beetle problem, but I suspect frequent succession planting may be the best solution.  Nearly all of our plants produced some cucumbers before they succumbed to disease.

Melons: pretty much ditto, except that we had even fewer fruit.  We did not do enough with vertical structures, however; it really should help to get the vines off the ground.

Our late-spring-planted squash plants, both summer and winter, were all killed off by squash vine borers, despite foil wrapping the stems.  Next year I plan to: wrap the stems better, with fabric instead of foil; pile mulch around some of the stems as a trial; plant good old Zucchetta Tromboncino, the huge-vined huge-fruited squash I've never lost a plant of (we did lose butternut this year, though, which should also be resistant to vine borers).  We had no success with a June planting, which used to be the solution to the borer problem; now they are producing a second generation to attack late-planted squash.  However, we did get some fruit from a mid-August planting of seedlings started in July: success through procrastination!

Let's face it; we have a serious cucurbit bug problem in the Derwood Demo Garden.  Next year we need to focus on combating these pests by every organic means possible.  One of our biggest problems is time - we're just not there in the garden often enough, but there is only so much we can do about that.

Squash bugs were controlled fairly well through crushing of egg masses and some hand-picking of adults.

Leafy Greens

Whew, a success to report, in this our Year of Leafy Greens!  Both our spring and fall crops of mustard, pak choi, kale and other greens produced well.  Our green curly mustard, in fact, lasted well into the summer months, only succumbing to harlequin bugs when we had to uncover it due to size.  And that's the secret to our success: keeping the plants under row cover from planting until the bugs were frozen out in October.

We did note that our Tuscan kale (or Lacinato or Dinosaur), perhaps because of its non-bitter flavor or its bluish color, was the least attractive to harlequin bugs, not attacked until everything else was gone.  However, the cabbage worms liked it fine, so I'd still suggest keeping it under cover.  Too bad, since it is SO PRETTY.

No rabbit problems with greens or beans this year, thanks to our intrepid fence team led by Tom Maxwell! Yay!

Other Successes

Our biggest hits of the year were the roselle hibiscus or Jamaican sorrel, used for the flowers and leaves, and the yacon, enormous plants that produce delicious crunchy edible tubers in fall.  (Pop those into the search box if you want to read more about them.)

Mystery Failure

For the second year in a row we have failed to produce much in the way of okra, which used to be a foolproof crop that loves our heat and humidity and usually gives us many more pods than we want to eat.  This is especially odd since it is related to the above-mentioned hibiscus, which did extremely well.  However, the okra plants were strangely short and sickly and died young.  Perhaps the seed was too old?  I will try again next year with brand-new seed.

This is a very quick summary written in a hurry before a holiday trip; I apologize, but I'll try to discuss details in the comments if anyone has questions.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sweet Potatoes

I love growing Sweet Potatoes! All things considered, they are a fairly easy crop to grow. At the end of May, you just stick some little plants, called slips, into the ground and at the end of the season you dig up these enormous sweet potatoes. In between, you just watch the vines grow bigger and bigger. This past year, I grew two different varieties: the trusted Beauregard and Puerto Rico, a sweet, light colored variety.

Sweet Potatoes taking over the garden (dark foliage)
The only big problem seems to be mice and voles that like to eat the sweet potatoes and built entire nest under the safety of the abundant foliage. They seem to move in sometime in August. So far, the only way to control these critters seems to be with old fashioned mouse traps baited with a piece of apple. I put down the traps in the late afternoon and usually I will have caught at least one critter by the next morning. I just keep setting traps until they stay empty. It may seem a bit cruel, but the mice/voles don't suffer like they would in glue traps and there is no poison that might harm other animals.

I store the sweet potatoes in a closet. The first time I ever grew sweet potatoes, I stored them in our unheated garage with the regular potatoes. Well, that was not a good idea. Sweet potatoes do not like to be cold, so they all rotted. That is why they are now in the closet of our guest room.

Peeled Sweet Potatoes: Puerto Rico (top) and Beauregard
Not only do I love to GROW sweet potatoes, my family also loves to EAT them. Our favorite dish is not the traditional mashed sweet potatoes, but sweet potato "fries". Here is how I make them. I start by peeling the potatoes (this is where those gigantic ones come in handy; one sweet potato is enough for an entire meal).

Then I cut the potatoes into strips that look like french fries. Most recipes will tell you to put the "fries" in a bowl and toss them with oil and salt. However, I don't really like to do dishes, so I just put the "fries" onto cookie sheet and pour olive oil straight over them. I also add salt, pepper and rosemary! I twirl the sweet potato fries around with may hands and spread them out in a single layer (my poor gardening hands seem to really appreciate being coated in olive oil as well!)

Ready to go into the oven

All done!

I stick the cookie sheets in a preheated oven (425 degrees) for about 20-25 minutes. When they come out, they are all nice and crisp and they smell amazing. Add them to a plate with some green vegetables and all of a sudden, you have a very colorful meal. I hope I convinced you to give sweet potatoes a try in 2013.
Sweet Potato "fries" and a slaw made with winter veggies

Carroll County Grow It Eat It learning programs begin January 14th at 6:30 PM

See our classes listed on the Grow It Eat It website here!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Book Review: Any Size Anywhere Gardening

I would have enjoyed Any Size Anywhere Edible Gardening by William Moss (Cool Springs Press, $21.99) when I was in college, worked a couple of jobs and lived in a second floor apartment overtop a parking lot in the university’s no man’s land between city and suburbs. The author, who is an instructor at the Chicago Botanic Garden, offers to space-bound, inexperienced, time-crunched souls both the encouragement and the practical tips needed to grow a little bit of their own produce.  Moss, whose breezy delivery welcomes you in, has four mantras that immediately endeared him and his gardening philosophy to me: have fun; don’t stress; start small; and don’t let a lack of knowledge intimidate you.
Simply (though not simplistically) written in an accessible style, the book introduces the uninitiated to the basics of small-space gardening then works toward the practicalities of healthy production. Throughout the book, Moss lauds the pleasures and benefits of the enterprise, but also includes such down to earth topics as: soil; sustainability; best management practices; starting seeds, fertilizing and watering; and wildlife ecology — all without getting preachy or overwhelming.
A community garden plot
In addition to container gardening on balconies, rooftops, and patios, Moss illustrates the space-saving benefits of vertical gardening – for example, sticking a trellis for the peas into the container – as well as the variety of plantable spaces possible — hanging baskets, green walls, whacked-together boxes, cinder blocks, pots, etc. He also reminds readers of the possibility of community gardens – most urban areas now offer a number of community garden spaces.
A couple of quibbles: I would have preferred more photos of cramped urban spaces –potted balcony gardens, raised beds on concrete walkways or parking lots instead of what look to be the strategically-photographed corners of larger gardens. While I appreciate his list of vegetable possibilities including beans — especially pole beans, since they tend to be heavy producers over several weeks — I would have liked more vegetable recommendations that would give more culinary bang for the horticultural buck. Things like broccoli or cabbage don’t make all that much sense in a pot or small box–you tend to get one or two, big, much-loved heads for one or two meals — whereas herbs mixed with peas, followed by a tomato or pepper or even okra or two produce more food longer. Likewise sweet potatoes, however pretty the vine, seem less than an economical use of space. To my mind, we can use limited space far better by planting greens such as chard, kale, lettuces, arugula, etc., which you tend to cut and cut again (although I do understand the draw of growing a big climbing squash plant for the drama alone, so maybe it’s just a personal choice). Having said all that, there’s much to appreciate in the book.
Small contained space
Moss’s experience, the range of information, which assumes an audience that wants a seed-to-harvest primer, and his everybody-in-the-pool attitude. He’s all about the fun of growing your own food without turning it into a chore. I particularly like the description of a compost pile as an ‘out-of-the-way heap of organic matter that you poke at with a pitchfork from time to time,’ a wonderfully laid-back approach — leaving aside the issue of where apartment dwellers or urban dwellers whose municipalities may have regulations against uncontained refuse that feeds vermin might site one.
Any Size, Anywhere Edible GardeningThe No Yard, No Time, No Problem Way to Grow Your Own Food is not what I would call the definitive text on the subject, but it’s a good soup-to-nuts starter for those who want to get their food-gardening feet wet. It would make a great gift to a student, an apartment or condo dweller or anyone with limited space and energy, who simply wants to add to the pleasure and satisfaction of their lives by growing a little something to eat.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Reflections on the 2012 tomato season

Post by Sabine Harvey

It is almost December and I still haven’t written my reflections on this past tomato season. Let me
start by saying that I grow all my tomatoes from seed. I grow these seedlings not only for my own
garden, but also for “my” school garden. In order to make a good comparison, I make sure the
seedlings get transplanted to the gardens in the same week. These gardens are located within a few
miles of each other, so you might wonder about how different they could be. Well, you might be

First, let me introduce this year’s “players”. Of course there were the yearly recurring performers,
who have proven their worth in the garden: Celebrity Hybrid, Early Pick and Juliet. In addition, I
grew Best Boy, Marglobe, Big Rainbow and three paste tomatoes: Amish Paste, San Marzano and

Celebrity Hybrid and Early Pick are mid-size tomatoes with a good flavor. Juliet is a large grape
tomato with a great taste. It is one of the first tomatoes to start producing and it is usually still going
strong in October. It is a great tomato for eating straight off the vine or for cooking. Once again,
these tomatoes did not disappoint.

After last year’s experiment with beef steak tomatoes (I am still not a fan), I may need to add Best
Boy to the list of recurring performers. 2011 was a tough year for tomatoes and Best Boy did not do
too bad. So I decided to give it another chance; it did not let me down and performed well in both
gardens. It is a big tomato, but not super gigantic. It has a good flavor and it is a pretty tough plant.

The fact that it is a tough plant came in handy, because the tomatoes in the school garden were
struck by a nasty disease early in the season. By mid June, the lower leaves on many plants looked
terrible. All I could do was remove the diseased foliage, make sure no one splashed water onto the
plants and keep my fingers crossed. While the weather stayed dry, the disease slowed down. Things
went downhill rapidly once it started to rain in August. Of course, I was fairly concerned that I would
bring this disease to my own garden. I made sure to disinfect my tools, I had a separate pair of
gloves for the school garden and I even went as far as changing my clothes and shoes before I went
from one garden to the other.

A local garden center donated the Marglobe seeds. Although the description on the seed packet
sounded promising, I was not impressed. Marglobe did okay in my own garden. The tomatoes were
about the size of an Early Girl, but they had very little flavor. The tomatoes were also very prone to
crack after a rain event, more so than other tomatoes. In the school garden Marglobe was downright pitiful. There, the tomatoes never grew any bigger than a very large cherry tomato and it was
also one of the first plants to succumb to the disease.

I thought we needed some color among our tomatoes, so I decided to grow Big Rainbow. This is a
yellow heirloom tomato with red stripes. Wow!!!!! The tomatoes were gigantic! Yes, I know, I am
not a fan of beefsteak tomatoes, but the flavor was absolutely amazing. In fact, I am not sure I have
ever tasted a better tomato (sorry Juliet). What is more, my teenage children agreed. On numerous
occasions I would find them in the kitchen making some sort of wonderful dish for themselves with
this tomato.

The only caveat – and I think this is true for all heirloom tomatoes – is that I find it really hard to
grow heirlooms in a garden where I only come a few times a week. Heirlooms are funny; you really
need to pick the tomatoes before they are at their peak. Unlike so many hybrids, that will happily
stay on the vine even when they are perfectly ripe, if you don’t pick that heirloom on time, you
won’t get to pick it all. So often I would see a beautiful Big Rainbow tomato but it just wasn’t ripe
yet. I would come back two days later and it would be cracked, rotting or eaten by the squirrels. Just
like me, the squirrels preferred this tomato over all the other ones!

Now for the paste tomatoes. My family eats a fair bit of tomato sauce. Since I haven’t bought a
tomato in a store for years, I decided to take it one step further and try to can my own sauce as
well. Hence the 3 different kinds of paste tomatoes. According to the literature, if you are going to
grow a paste tomato, you really ought to grow San Marzano which is kind of the standard of paste

Well, as one of my teachers at Longwood Gardens once said: Plants do not read books! I have no
idea what happened, but it wasn’t a pretty picture. In my own garden, this plant got some sort of
dwarfing disease. It looked very odd and it managed to produce a total of 3 tomatoes. Yes, you read
that right, 3 tomatoes. Clearly I should have yanked the plant out of the ground, but I am an eternal
optimist and I was hoping that it would simply start to grow at some point. Clearly I was wrong. In
the school garden, San Marzano did grow to full size, but the tomatoes just weren’t very impressive
and the above mentioned disease didn’t help either.

I tried Amish Paste for the first time in 2011. I’ll admit, it wasn’t the greatest producer ever, but I
thought it could have potential. I am glad I gave it another chance, because it did much better this
season. It produced nice, fat tomatoes, great for making sauce. It also managed to hang on in the
school garden longer than San Marzano.

However, my new favorite paste tomato is Gilbertie (It is a really cool name, especially when you try
to say it with an Italian accent). The tomatoes are huge and very, very fleshy. It is absolutely perfect
for making sauce. Yes, it was a little slow to get going. It also suffered in a major way from blossom
end rot, but so did the other two paste tomatoes. I now know that this tomato needs extra care
when it comes to watering and a supply of calcium.

This week, the first seed catalogues for 2013 started to arrive in the mail. Before I order any new
seeds for the next growing season, I would love to know what you grew in your garden and whether
you have any recommendations for me.

Sabine Harvey

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Leafy greens, sweet potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, and thankfulness

Grow It Eat It wishes you and yours a happy Thanksgiving!

I am thankful for much this November, including my Master Gardener friends and particularly my new Derwood Demo Garden vegetable co-leader, Robin Ritterhoff, who has taken it on herself this year to turn our vague and occasional association with Manna Food Center into a regular donation program.  We have donated 480 pounds of produce this year!  And we hope to do even better next year.

Tuesday's donation was 20 pounds of leafy greens, including mustard, kale, lettuce, Swiss chard, and lovely purple pak choi.  Here we are posed with the bounty:

photo by Nancy Woods

And a close-up:

And here's me with the purple pak choi, which is definitely my favorite leafy green of the year:

photo by Robin Ritterhoff
I'm also thankful to Robin for pointing me to the recipe for Maple Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Rosemary Sunchokes and Sausage, which I'm going to make today using vegetarian sausage and sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes) I had forgotten I planted until they bloomed this fall.  I think I brought some home to plant and stuck them in a corner since I didn't, as usual, have a plan, and now I am hoping I managed to dig them all up though one never does.  They really are a great edible native plant to have around, but you have to ride herd on them or they start having sneaky notions of conquest.  Well, pretty overt notions of conquest, actually.  Last week at the demo garden we dug out about 100 square feet of Jerusalem artichokes which I'm sure were never meant to be, but just happened.  This produced FORTY POUNDS of tubers which Robin delivered to Manna; they were, luckily, very pleased to have them.

I'm also serving the remainder of my modest sweet potato harvest in all its multi-colored glory.  Let me regale you with a photo of my All Purple sweet potato (the only large one of the bunch) which we ate a couple of weeks ago.

I tried, I really tried, to get a picture of the interior once I'd baked it, but it ended up looking kind of gray and threatening when it's really a beautiful dark, dark violet, and the only way I can describe the taste is by analogy: Georgia Jet is to orange juice as All Purple is to burgundy.  And I do love orange juice, really, but the purple sweet potato is just so complex and earthy and much less sweet and quite fascinating, though it's not what I'd want every time and it would be terrible with marshmallows.

Speaking of sweet potatoes, here is this Tuesday's sequel to the story of Voles in Paradise: so nearly all the tubers inside the fence were chewed up and unusable, alas, and this week it was time to roll up the hardware cloth fence that didn't keep the voles out this year and put it away, and so Barbara started digging a trench around the outside to free it.  And she kept finding sweet potatoes (for "find" read "put her shovel through," but never mind that, it happens to the best of us, and Barbara is the best of us).  And every one of those sweet potatoes was in perfect shape, aside from being recently cleaved by a shovel.  Because all the voles were inside the fence.  Ha!

I hope all of you have some sweet surprises in your lives this holiday, potato or not.  Enjoy your vegetables!

P.S. Barbara relates "the sad sequel to the sweet potato story":

"After bringing home the chopped off pieces of the “outside” sweet potatoes, I cleaned them up as best I could for dinner; mostly they had enough bad spots that I peeled them completely; then I boiled them, but even after plenty of time boiling some were too hard to stick a fork in. However, I persisted, and the grandchildren gamely gave them a try; we all agreed that they were inedible. No flavor at all, hard to chew, and they definitely proved what I had always heard. Once there is a frost, and the vines have died, you have to dig the potatoes right away, or they will be no good. So next year I will know to look for potatoes all around the outside too."

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Planting Hardneck Garlic in Indian Summer

Four kinds of hardneck garlic broken into cloves
The past three days were gorgeous, like a return to spring, so my mind naturally returned to the garden -- which I  confess I had left pretty much to its own devices the past several weeks.  I had planned to plant hardneck garlic this year as usual, but had left it kinda late. Came the hurricane, and chill weather, and a feeling that I had missed the horticultural boat. Then Gary, spurred on by the brief Indian summer, foolishly sweetly asked what he could do to help. Over morning coffee, I gave him the chore of prepping two small beds, figuring he would forget it during a day of brushing goose blinds. Wrong. He went out immediately with a garden fork, looking a little like a man marching into battle, and not only weeded and dug and fluffed the beds, he also spread two loads of compost over them, which meant I really had to follow through that day instead of sitting in a garden chair with a beer and book and a blissful expression on my face enjoying the last balmy days of the year.  So I did. Get up off my duff, that is.
Two prepped beds awaiting garlic cloves
Garlic is the Rodney Dangerfield of the larder. It gets no respect. Even sophisticated cooks settle for those aging white knobs in the supermarket, most of which come all the way from China, which is the world’s largest garlic producer last time I checked.  But most of us settle because we haven’t experienced the locally grown difference. I hadn’t until a few years ago when I tasted Music hardneck garlic, a large-cloved Italian variety with a sweet pungent flavor named for Al Music who brought it to Canada in the 1980’s. Compared to the store-bought stuff I’d been using for years, it made me feel as though I’d been cooking with oven mitts over my taste buds. Crisp and juicy, it brightened everything  – aioli, pesto, chicken cacciatore, pepper hummus, Moroccan beef, and 10-minute pasta. (Throw together in a bowl: torn brie cheese, chopped fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, and mashed garlic. Add salt, pepper and a splash of olive oil. Cook linguine then dump the hot drained pasta over the raw sauce and mix. Supper’s ready. Don’t forget the red wine.).
Softeneck garlic varieties grow a bulb that’s a clustered clump of cloves, while hardneck garlic has five to seven cloves in a single ring around a hard center stem. Hardneck types also produce a late spring scape, an elegant edible green curly-cue at the top of the stem, so hardneck’s a kind of two-fer culinarly-speaking. Softneck garlic, which has no center stem (hence no scape) usually stores better and some say they’re easier to grow, but hardnecks, which store up to six months in a cool, dry place, have better flavor in my estimation. 
Planted cloves stuck waiting to be covered
Planting garlic is simple. (And once you’ve grown it, you can save some and plant your own for next year’s crop.). Each planted clove produces a new bulb. It needs well-drained soil and will rot (as mine did one year) if you plant it in too-wet ground without enough steady sun to dry it sufficiently, or if you mulch it too heavily and leave heavy sodden mulch on during a damp spring. Having said all that, it's actually easy to grow.
Last year's planting at Colchester Farms CSA
The two beds Gary prepped are both new to garlic in our garden and are fairly well-drained so we have high hopes. Break the bulbs apart into cloves, being sure to leave the plate (the flat foot of each clove) intact; it's where the coming season's roots will emerge. Push each clove down into loamy earth on a dry day (like yesterday -- it was lovely, warm breeze, sunshine, gorgeously prepped bed I could get my fingers into easily) about 6-8 inches apart. I plant mine in a grid and will mulch them lightly with fresh straw once I get hold of some in the next few days.  
Bulbs of Music garlic waiting to be broken apart

Friday, November 9, 2012


西洋菜 (Watercress)
Watercress (Nasturtium Officinale) is a native plant of Europe and Asia. It was not popular here in the states in the distant past. But how I love watercress when I was younger growing up in Hong Kong. And I still love it. Watercress is one of my favorite vegetables. Thank you, mom, for introducing me to these great veggies when I was wee old.
Recently, I noticed that our local supermarket actually carries watercress. I was pleasantly surprise because normally I can only find it in the Asian markets. However, the price was somewhat higher than what I am used to. So, I am going try my hand in growing them.
As an inspiration, I cooked some watercress soup for tonight. Here are some pictures of it.

西洋菜湯 (Watercress soup)

This veggie is pack with vitamins & minerals (Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Vitamin K, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Vitamin B6, Calcium, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Manganese)It is also a good source of Protein, Folate, Pantothenic Acid and Copper.
There are two methods of growing. You can start from seed or propagating it from the original plants. I will pick the latter. 
Take the grocery bought watercress and stick it in a soil medium and keep it moist. Watercress normally grows in fast moving water, like shallow streams. Sounds simple but I do the same with scallions and they grow well.