Saturday, September 28, 2013

Adventures with purple sweet potatoes

You'll probably hear from me several times on this topic, but to start with: I am digging my All Purple sweet potatoes. I grew a couple plants of this variety last year, which didn't produce much, but I liked the taste so much I decided to try again with six plants, and these are coming in nicely. This was the first plant's yield, plus some that were off the edges of the photo:

I'm doing what I know is an insufficient job of curing them, but it's too chilly both inside and out to give them an 80-degree humid place to develop their sugars and toughen up for storage, and I completely refuse to put a space heater on in the bathroom for ten days straight. So the first batch got a few days outside in the sun and now is sitting on the hot water heater; the second batch, dug today, will sit in a sunny-ish window (maybe, as my husband suggested, with a foil-lined box around them). And I'm going to test the flavor at different stages to see how it changes. I'm not sure how much this type of sweet potato needs to develop sugars, or if the taste will alter much, but it's worth experimenting with.

Purple sweet potatoes are naturally less sweet and more dense than orange or white ones, and the flavor is complex, earthy, almost wine-like. I'm very fond of it. They're aesthetically interesting to cook with, too - really purple.

peeled and unpeeled
and cut
This means that you have to think a bit about what color your finished product will be. I learned from this blog (which has lots of other good information about growing these plants) that the purple in these roots will turn red when lemon juice is added and blue-green when baking soda is added, and the Stokes Purple Sweet Potatoes FAQs suggests avoiding baking soda in recipes because of the color change. (Stokes is one variety/brand of purple sweet potatoes, available in some stores.)

I've already tried this recipe for purple sweet potato latkes, which were a bit fragile but tasted great. And I have a long list of other recipes to try, and will pass on the best of them here.

I grew the potatoes in my community garden plot, and have learned several things. First: I already knew this, but I need to work on the soil in that plot a lot. Digging this morning, after the long dry spell, was hard work. Also, the roots tend to be longer and thinner in spots where the soil is hard, and they form on long roots far away from the plant, or else directly underneath it.

I am glad to find, so far, no damage from voles, since I didn't protect the plants at all. I did see one wireworm and found pinholes in a couple of roots. I also unearthed what I think was an Eastern worm snake:

That was exciting! It looked, at first, like a very large earthworm (which is one of the things it feeds on) but then revealed itself as definitely serpentine. I removed it from the digging area, and it probably burrowed back down under the soil.

And my experiment of planting the sweet potatoes under a row of tomatoes has worked out fine: I'm pulling the tomato plants as I did the potatoes, the timing having worked out perfectly this year; the sweet potato plants were lush and grew out into the surrounding paths, without being unreasonably shaded out (and I got lots of delicious greens to eat); and so far there doesn't seem to have been any significant root competition.

More later!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Introducing Kale to France

Great article in the New York Times about one American woman's efforts to get the French to embrace kale: here.

Wireworms in potatoes

I apologize for the upcoming images. It's really not possible to make this pretty.

This year, for the first time that anyone in the Derwood Demo Garden remembers, we had an infestation of wireworms in our potatoes.

photo by Darlene Nicholson
Wireworms are the larvae of click beetles. Their primary food plants are grass, grassy weeds, and certain grains, so they most often turn up in gardens that have been recently converted from field, which is definitely not true of our over-20-years-old demo garden. Wherever they came from, they found our potato patch this year, and bored holes in many of the tubers. Some of the damage was superficial, and some looked like this when we opened up the potatoes:

photo by Darlene Nicholson
I'm guessing this is a secondary bacterial or fungal infection that developed after the wireworms penetrated far enough; in any case, it smells awful and makes the potatoes inedible.

We always rotate our crops, so next year we'll plant potatoes in a different spot, and hope for the best. You can use traps of cut pieces of potato, or carrots, to discover whether an area is infested and remove some of the wireworms, so we'll try that, and we'll cultivate this year's potato patch deeply in fall and more shallowly in spring before planting anything, to bring the worms to the surface. And I'll try to avoid planting any root crops there.

So far, the wireworms have badly infested our 'Eva' potatoes, and prevented our second crop of 'Yukon Gold' from growing. They don't seem to have traveled over to the 'Shepody' row, and I hope it stays that way.

Here's UMD's factsheet on potato diseases and pests.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Monticello Heritage Harvest Festival: my experience

Monticello's vegetable garden

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, an annual event that I was attending for the fourth time (2009-2011, missed last year). It's a fun event in a beautiful setting, with ample chance to learn from people who are foremost in the horticultural, agricultural and environmental fields, at a very low cost (talks and workshops range from free to $15), or just hang around all day enjoying great food and music and scenery and buying locally-made products, and I urge everyone to put it on the calendar as soon as they announce next year's dates.

I went to two talks in the morning that I'd bought tickets to ahead of time, and one sort of by accident in the afternoon. First up was Craig LeHoullier, expert on heirloom tomatoes and, it turns out, really nice guy (I was the first to arrive so I had a chance to chat with him beforehand), talking about Tomatoes for Southeast Gardens, but also about history and how heirloom varieties get rediscovered and what a bad year it had been for tomatoes down in Raleigh (worse than here). A few of the things I learned:

- Craig's current big project is the development of dwarf (container) tomato varieties from heirloom types, so that gardeners with limited space can grow tomatoes with great flavor.

- There is no such thing as a "low-acid" tomato; all varieties have close to the same amount of acid, but some have more sugar than others.

- Determining the color of tomatoes for descriptive purposes is complicated and controversial, but works out as a combination of flesh and skin color. For example, red and pink tomatoes may have the same color flesh but look different due to the clear skin of the pink types and the yellow skin of the red. (There are guides to this phenomenon here and here.)

Later in the day I finally got into the tomato tasting tent up on the main lawn, and decided that at least one of the many tomatoes Craig had recommended, Aunt Ruby's German Green (or just Aunt Ruby's Green, as apparently Ruby wasn't German at all and the addition snuck in there later on), is going on my list for next year.

The next talk I attended was Innovative Home Composting with Barbara Pleasant, who's a great speaker; most of the information she presented is covered in The Complete Compost Gardening Guide which I have a copy of (it's a great book that everyone interested in composting should read), but it was nice to see photos and hear stories in person, and I'm stoked to try some of the methods out. Also she handed out cover crop seeds, which we are using in the demo garden this fall.

And then in the afternoon I decided to hear Cary Fowler, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, talk about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which he helped found five years ago. There are projects for which the word "awesome" in its literal sense is appropriate, and this is one of them; I think we can all be glad this facility exists, and it was also wonderful to spend an hour on a warm afternoon looking at lots of slides of ice and snow. It is really, really cold in Svalbard (which is of course one of the reasons that site was chosen).

Here is an interview with Fowler in The Atlantic from last year; and yes, they did get the seeds from Syria safely stored.

So, a lovely day, and again I urge everyone to visit next year! Another treat that I decided to miss this time, but very worth doing, is a seed-saving tour of the vegetable garden with its gardener-in-chief, Pat Brodowski. I walked around the whole garden twice by myself instead; looked as if they'd had a tough year too, but it was still gorgeous.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

How to rescue produce, two ways

Today's Washington Post Food section features several articles with the theme of preventing food waste. Grow It Eat It readers should particularly appreciate the article by Carol Blymire on how to revive wilted produce (hint: most of the methods involve trimming a vegetable's ends and soaking it in water for a while; yes, it's that simple) and Daphne Miller's story on why blemished produce can be better for you than its perfect "supermodel" cousin.

I'm as easily seduced by a flawless apple as the next Snow White, but I'm glad to find that my bruised and bitten home-grown veggies may actually have more nutritional value than the shiny ones displayed in stores. Cinderella? Beauty and the Beast? The Ugly Duckling? Rescuing less-than-lovely produce is a story with a happy ending, too.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

"Oh, I have a pocket full of mouse melons!" of those things you never thought you'd say until you did.

(The story behind this is: I spent a couple of hours this weekend beginning to work through the absolute jungle that is my former vegetable garden (since operations have now moved to the community garden). Along the way, I found a treasure trove of small onions (mostly "Egyptian" or walking onions, with I think a few shallots thrown in) and, so as not to waste them, pulled them up, and then spent HOURS skinning them and cutting up the greens, but now I have pork stew with onions we are just about to eat when I finish typing this, and a gallon freezer bag full of onion greens for the winter. I also discovered a few mouse melon (or Mexican sour gherkin) plants that grew from last year's fallen seeds (from plants that grew from the previous year's fallen seeds), struggling along amid the weeds, with some fruit, which I stuck in my pocket for safekeeping and then forgot about.

Voilà (after washing), salad. And yet another day of Adventures in Gardening.)

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Vegetable for Flower Lovers

It may seem hard to believe, but there are gardeners who can’t be bothered with vegetables. For a vegetable lover such as myself, every vegetable is interesting and unique, but one this year has stood out – for its flower! Even I found myself far more interested in the flower than the vegetable. The snake gourd is a very interesting vegetable in its own right, but I’d never grown it before and had no idea that it emerged from such an amazing flower. Wikipedia notes that the flower opens only at night but I saw it first on an early morning stroll in my backyard where the snake gourd has room to roam.

The snake gourd (Trichosanthes cucumerina), has many names depending on the country or region it where it is grown. It is popular in South and Southeast Asia, and unlike the bitter gourd, the taste and smell are delicate like a cucumber, and easily manipulated by the desires of the cook. But first, the flower – not only are there a multitude of delicate tendrils all opened to form an orderly web, these same tendrils curl up during the hot daylight hours when they are done showing off.

In fact they curl up in such a way that they are able, once again, to re-open, untangled, soft and complex. The leaves too emulate this delicacy. They are not as light as the bitter gourd, but not heavy like the winter squashes. I can’t think of a better way to soften a landscape than with this fast growing and beautiful vine.
Of course, the vegetables are also striking. Reminiscent of zebra stripes, the striped pattern on each gourd is unique. Each vine produces huge quantities as though it needs to feed the world. Even my veggie eating family cannot keep up with the product of just two plants.

For the person who does not have a lot of time to cook, this vegetable is a true gift. Since you eat the skin, there is no struggle as with many other gourds, and the seeds inside may be scooped out with a spoon in seconds.

The insides may be brushed with a mild lemon garlic flavor or something very spicy, depending on your taste—the snake gourd absorbs flavor like chicken does. Stuff it with the combination of your choice. I used the ingredients from my garden (above), a spice packet from Pat Kenny, plus roasted pine nuts to fill the snake gourd boats. Bake, serve and enjoy.
The snake gourd accommodates many tastes and schedules. If you are not up to the boat option provided above, you can chop the snake gourd and toss into curries, soups, or mix it in with stir fries. Or, steam the chunks and toss into green salads. Another easy preparation is to chop and toss into a sauté of onion, garlic, ginger and some garam masala, and serve. Toss chilled leftovers into a tomato salad, or top with yoghurt and mint. The options are endless with this versatile vegetable.

I began the season wondering what new thing I would grow this year, but soon became pre-occupied with community garden matters and getting down to the hard work of reconstituting a new community garden plot. It was not until mid-July that I noticed the snake gourd plant. Once it makes itself known, there is no stopping it. For now, it has added excitement to gardening, and renewed motivation to look forward to the Fall growing season.

Late Summer Beans

New haricots verts and the promise of more
Yesterday I picked my first batch of the second wave of haricots verts.   I’m so excited! Slim little things hanging in clusters off a small patch of French green beans that I planted about six weeks ago in a spot that earlier in the season had held leeks.  

Though truly organized gardeners usually get in a whole series of plantings of fall crops, sometimes well into the fall -- and then they cover them and carry them through February winters like the one we had last year -- I often miss getting a second planting of anything in the garden. But this year weather, energy and timing coincided to make it possible. My husband happened to be home at just the right time to plant, which helped tremendously. I had emptied and weeded (oh so much weeding this summer!) the beds, but he scooped out a lot of compost and spread it on them. I planted arugula, lettuce, kale (from saved seed that was given me by a young gardener friend). I also had a half of the packet of French beans from Cooks’ Garden leftover from the first planting, so emptied it into one of those fresh, beautifully rich-looking squares of earth.  In planting bush beans, I always put the seeds on top of the soil in a grid with each seed about six inches apart from its fellows. When they sprout, you need to weed a little, but as they grow they shade out the weeds. Convenient and efficient.
 Beans, arugula, lettuce and kale sown in early August

Three weeks of no rain here rather too me by surprise. I had gotten out of the habit of watering.  But several days ago – after Erica’s mention of having to get out the watering can, in fact – I filled a couple of five gallon buckets from the rain barrels by the shed and watered the haricots verts and the Calypso beans in the  bed that earlier had held the hardneck garlic, which came out in early July.

And so now, I have beans. And lots of blossoms that promise more beans. These first beans, nothing like the rather sad-looking things I’ve been seeing at the grocery store lately, are crisp, slimmer-than-pencil babies that taste wonderful. I sautéed half with a shallot for supper. Takes about eight minutes, and I have a couple of roasted golden beets in the frig for beet and bean salad for lunch tomorrow. I'm hoping for beans  until frost with maybe enough to put a few in the freezer in vaccum sealed bags. (I gave my hunter husband a vacuum sealer for his birthday a few years ago; it’s been a big help in keeping the quality and preventing freezer burn). Meanwhile, I'm grateful for this second flush of production. Summer’s not QUITE over!
Fresh-picked haricots verts
Sauteed beans and shallots for supper

Monday, September 2, 2013

Getting reacquainted with the watering can

I had to go water my community garden plot this morning, because 50% chance of thunderstorms isn't enough when there's been barely any rain all week, and I have newly-planted seedlings in there. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's out of the habit of watering regularly this year. There are pluses and minuses to lots of rain, but certainly it's nice not to have to lug hoses and cans around all the time.

It seems that every year has unusual weather in it, so that "usual" doesn't mean much any longer (if it ever did), but gardeners like to dwell on recent anomalies. This year we had a chilly spring and a startling late frost in May, lots of rain, and only a few periods of extreme heat over the summer (one of them came pretty much right after the May frost, if I recall correctly, though I missed it since I was in California, where they barely have seasons).  There have been negative aspects to this weather (so much early blight on the tomatoes!) but everything that didn't suffer and die grew with lush abandon (which is pretty much a description of every year's garden).

For me, those root crops that we are celebrating this year did extremely well. At the demo garden, we harvested big fat leeks in July and August. I'm used to waiting till fall and winter to pull them up, but it seemed silly to leave them in the ground when they were so delectably edible. I do have to acknowledge that half of the same bunch of leek seedlings were planted in my community garden plot and are still half the size of the demo garden ones, so part of that is Magic Soil that only years of adding compost will achieve, but the rain helped. It also helped with fantastic beets and carrots (though some of the carrots were subject to cracking), and with celeriac that, again, I think of as a spring-planted, fall-harvested crop, but is ready to come out now (and will have to, to make room for a new row of beets).

Our Charentais and Asian melons did not like the rain; they prefer to be carefully irrigated while the vines are growing and then remain fairly dry while the fruit is forming, and what happened instead was powdery mildew, one watery-fleshed melon and total disaster. But the watermelons are coming along well.

And while most of our squash plants are dead despite every precaution in the book, the long-vined Tromboncino plants are still going strong (they resist vine borers and diseases) and producing lots of fruit, which some MGs decided to wear as a fashion statement last week:

photo by Robin Ritterhoff
Let me just add as a final note that this coming weekend the Monticello Heritage Harvest Festival is on in Charlottesville, VA; I'll be there, enjoying talks about tomatoes and compost, and if you haven't yet made plans for Saturday it's very much worth attending. I hope it doesn't rain. :)