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.