Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween links

Some links to check out for Halloween:

Adrian Higgins' column in today's Washington Post: The age of giant pumpkins

Harvard Extension: Pumpkin, flavor of the season

from Huffington Post

31 Pumpkin Carving Ideas for Overly Ambitious People

And some more photos from a master pumpkin carver.

Let this be the first post for the Year of the Cucurbit (which includes pumpkins), which you'll be hearing a lot more about as we approach 2014!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Autumn scenes

From this Tuesday at the Derwood Demo Garden:

The University of Maryland Maple Leaf Table, pretty much. I cleared out most of the leaves, harvested a bag of lettuce, and covered the tables with row cover to guard against frost. We still have some radishes growing, and lots of arugula, and hopefully the lettuce will survive.

And here is the last harvest (probably) of tromboncino squash:

This is the squash that, when other squashes give up and succumb to bugs or powdery mildew, just keeps going and going. It's a Cucurbita moschata type, so pretty resistant to our nemesis the squash vine borer, attracts many fewer squash bugs than other plants, and isn't bothered much by diseases. The fruit is tender up to a couple feet long; here I've harvested all the small ones as well because of anticipated freezing weather. The plants were still producing tiny squashes, too small to harvest. Its only disadvantage, for those of us gardening in restricted space, is that it's huge; the enormous vines will take over your garden if you can't convince them to climb a tall fence or trellis. I have a hint in this regard, after much trial and error: make sure your support is to the south of the squash plants. They'll ignore a beautiful trellis and clamber toward the sun, otherwise. (In case anyone's reading this in the Southern Hemisphere: other way around.)

Friday, October 18, 2013

Cover crop seeds hold firm in 5+ inches of rain

 I planted barley, oat, and rye seed on October 6 for fall/winter cover crops. It was good to know that rain was expected the following week but I may have postponed my cover crop plans if I knew it would be a 5+ inch deluge! This would be a test of my lazy gardener method for planting cover crops:
1. Remove plants, stakes, and other debris
2. Cut weeds off at ground level with a sharp hoe
3. Loosen the soil with a garden fork
4. Rake the soil level and relatively smooth
5. Broadcast cover crop seed (cover crop fact sheet for details)
6. Walk on seeds to press them into the soil (must have good seed to soil contact for germination)

Step #6 elicited some laughter from my house and motivated my son to take some video with his phone. You see to efficiently and forcefully step on the maximum number of seeds I have to do a kind of cover crop dance (not sharing the video). I still felt there was a good chance that the rain would wash seeds to the low end of the beds. I was happily surprised to see that the lazy gardener method worked. I ended up with a good, even stand in each bed. The photo at top shows the emergence of a small bonus crop of buckwheat that re-seeded from a summer sowing.
Barley seedlings

Oat seedlings

Rye seedlings- notice the red stems

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Pleasures of Fall Gardening/Eating

While I enjoy the entire garden year, certainly fall is my favorite season.  There are three reasons why it's my favorite, first, less pest infestation (although I must confess that my stink and harlequin bug problem were pretty severe in August and early September), second, I love the brassicas and third, we tend to get more rain and I have to drip irrigate less.

Starting in early May, I planned my fall garden and planted some parsnips which take between 100-120 days to mature.  Parsnips can be difficult to germinate, but I find that if you use fresh seed and soak the seed overnight it germinates fairly well.  I also cover my parsnip seed with compost or used soilless mix so that the seedlings won't have the break through my Howard County clay.  The only thing after that is to keep the seed bed evenly moist.

Around June 15, I started my Packman and Premium Crop (broccoli), Brussels sprouts, Snow Crown, Romanesco and Veronica (cauliflower) seeds under lights.  These plants were transplanted in the garden the first week of August. The Packman, Premium Crop and Snow Crown are being harvested, but the Romanesco and Veronica won't start to head up until later this month since they take almost 80 days to reach maturity.

In August and early September, I planted carrots, beets, turnips, kale, spinach, lettuce and arugula. they all germinated nicely. Knowing that I was going on vacation for three weeks in mid September, I covered all of the Brassicas, carrots, turnips and beets with row cover to protect them from insects and as extra protection from bambi.

Well, when I returned home, I was rewarded with a garden full of vegetables and my deer fence broken down in two places (but that's for another blog).  The picture shows my trug with some of these vegetables.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Peanut harvest

Back in May I posted about why peanuts are cool, and this week at the demo garden we finally harvested our little patch. (We might have waited a little longer, but with all the rain forecast it sounded like a good idea. Wet peanuts are not happy peanuts. Or they can be a little too happy and start sprouting.) We had about a half dozen plants that were in somewhat less sun than they would have liked (I am very good at forgetting how much of the garden the Jerusalem artichokes shade when they get going) but still grew well and produced a modest yield, which I was too busy to remember to weigh. But this is some of it.

I shelled all these for roasting. The nuts had between one and four seeds inside; most were in pretty good shape but some were rotting, and one had a wireworm in it - wireworms again! We need to get to the bottom of this (besides potatoes, we've also found them in sweet potatoes and I saw possible damage in the yacon we dug up this week as well).

Anyway, here's what they looked like shelled:

Some seeds were more mature than others: the dark skins mean full maturity and the lighter skins or no skins mean they weren't quite ripe yet. But they all roasted just fine.

This post at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange details growing, harvesting and cooking instructions. I roasted at 350 for 22 minutes. Roasted peanuts have a lot more flavor than raw ones. Remember that if you plan to store your peanuts for a while, you need to dry them first as described in the SESE post. If you're going to cook and eat them right away, this isn't necessary.

As I said in my previous peanut post, I'm counting peanuts as part of the Year of Root Vegetables even though they technically aren't. But they do grow underground, as many of our visitors to last week's Harvest Festival were excited to discover.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Introductions and the O'Hare Urban Garden

Hello there!

 I'm Kristen, and I'm currently a Master Gardener Intern in Prince Georges County, MD. However, I live in the North East quadrant of Washington D.C., and my small backyard is perfect for a small urban container garden.

I'm passionate about vegetables, herbs, and anything I can grow that's edible, although I'm branching out into some flowers and other purely ornamental and lovely things. One of things I really love about my garden is that I have really tried to have a nice mix of varieties, and that includes fruit! I currently have fall--bearing raspberries and strawberries, and new this year, fall-bearing blackberries.

I'm very excited to be joining this blog as a new contributor, as I've been reading it for the past two years, and I can only hope to add something worthwhile to the already excellent content. I'll be concentrating on container gardens and related books, resources, and examples of ways to grow a little something even if you don't have any ground to do it in!

One of the best things about container gardens is that they are getting to be so widespread now, and come in so many shapes, sizes, and designs. Recently I was traveling for work and had a connecting flight in Chicago's O'Hare airport.

If I hadn't been going to a smaller terminal, to get on a connecting flight, I wouldn't have ever noticed this:

That glowing light in an otherwise dreary airport terminal, tucked up on the second floor was a beacon to me as I was passing through, and I just knew I had to investigate. 

It turns out it was an  urban aeroponic garden that supplies freshly-grown produce to some of the restaurants in the airport. How neat!

 The garden has over 1,100 plants and uses Tower Gardens to maintain a very small footprint. Each Tower is home to 44 plants, and has a small 30" circular base.

Seeds are planted in small cubes of natural rock-based fiber, then the seeds are bathed in warm, mineral rich water. Once the plants reach a certain size, the are transplanted into the Tower Gardens.

There are 26 total plant towers, which are suspended above a 20 gallon reservoir of nutrient solution that is internally pumped through a self-sustainable planting tower. Aeroponic systems grow plants in a water and mineral nutrient solution without soil, which is a fantastic way of growing a lot of food in a unique space such as an airport. In fact, the informational placards placed around the garden informed me that this is the worlds first vertical aeroponic garden inside an airport terminal!

Cilantro, Swiss Chard, and Oregano

 There is a lot of movement towards aeroponic systems for people who live in apartments, or other small spaces and do not have the ability to grow food in a traditional soil garden. I love seeing gardens of any kind in unique spaces, but I think this "live" display really is a great example of alternative methods that folks might not be as aware of.

Compared to traditional soil gardening, aeroponic systems like this one
  • Can produce a higher yield per square foot
  • Require no weed pulling
  • Provide year-round cultivation
  • Use about two-thirds less water
Unfortunately, one of the downsides is that the initial set up costs can be prohibitive to those with a much lower garden budget. However, once you able to invest in the system, you usually have lower costs from year to year to maintain it. While far from perfect, it is nice to know that there are options out there if you want something a little different. 

Two 50 gallon barrels for the entire system.

Habaneros were the biggest and most prominent vegetable growing the day I visited.

The O'Hare Urban Garden is a delightful respite from the hustle and bustle of the airport. If you ever find yourself with a few extra moments while traveling through, I would highly recommend making a detour to seek it out. The garden is located in Terminal 2, Concourse G, and provides a bight, comfortable spot to have a meal, read a book, or just enjoy watching the flowers grow.

Lettuce mix, Cherry tomatoes branching out, and bushy cilantro.

The market located immediately beneath the garden helps to advertise the garden and direct visitors to it above. It also delivers tasty, healthy food!

Monday, October 7, 2013

More on purple sweet potatoes

I'm still (slowly) unearthing my purple sweet potatoes - hoping this rain will make the digging easier! Here's a follow-up on my last post.

Since the first crop has had time to cure, I decided to try the recipe in this Eat Move Balance post. It's extremely simple and should work with non-purple sweet potatoes as well. Here's my version:

Cacao Roasted Purple Sweet Potatoes

Peel your sweet potatoes and cut into bite-sized cubes (more or less). Don't cut up more than will fit in one layer in your baking pan.

Drizzle with a neutral-flavored oil (I used canola) and sprinkle with unsweetened cocoa powder. (Or "cacao powder" as in the recipe, if that's how yours is labeled. I think they're pretty much the same thing. Don't use cocoa with sugar or sugar substitutes.) Stir everything together: you just want all the cubes to be lightly coated with oil and cocoa, not drowning in them.

Bake at 375 F. for 30 minutes, stirring once or twice during the baking time.

It is really yummy.

Based on the success of this effort, I decided to try a second baking pan using a high-quality balsamic vinegar my husband got at a local farmer's market. This batch was good, but I think the next time I won't use oil, and I'll let the raw vinegar-coated potatoes marinate for a while first. Really good balsamic vinegar is naturally sweet and should compliment the earthy purple sweet potato taste well, but it didn't penetrate the flesh much.

Next time: mashed. Or maybe cake!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Blessings from The Compost Pile

Squash vines spreading out from the compost pile

I love compost. I do. It’s rich, dark, earthy-smelling and gives me a sense of being part of the cycle of life. It’s a great addition to the garden beds, but it’s also, often, another inadvertent growing medium – as it was for us this summer.

Last fall, I bought two Long Island Cheese pumpkins (Curcurbita moschata) aka Cinderella pumpkins. They are good keepers, especially if you manage to keep them in a steadily cool place – not quite as good as those rock-hard Blue Hubbards, which I’ve had last nearly nine months and still going strong when I finally took a hatchet to them to cook. Even so, cheese pumpkins in a cool place are usually good keepers -- they not only last, but retain a big percentage of their glorious nutrients for months.

I made pumpkin butter out of one of the two cheese pumpkins in December last year and gave some to Dave, who gave me his aunt’s recipe. The other pumpkin, which stayed on a shelf in the cool porch just outside the kitchen, I enjoyed just looking at each time I came in. It was beautiful, smooth-skinned, a lovely peachy orange, and shaped like Cinderella’s coach. Decorative.
Cheese pumpkin hidden under a white pine

The day I planned to cook it though, I went to pick it up and discovered it had been quietly decomposing from the bottom up.  Ick. I slid it onto a cookie sheet, walked it out to the compost heap on one side of the yard, laid it down gently and forgot about it. Until about June, when I noticed that a few squash plants had started themselves there. I was hoping the vines would turn out to be an Iranian squash and maybe a long-necked pumpkin, both of which I had grown the year before from seed I had saved from those varieties I had bought from a farmer the year before that. But whatever.

I let the plants go; the vines got mowed around – the mower having to take a wider and wider swathe as they spread out into our yard and into the corn field on the other side of the fence – and I watched as the blossoms started along who knows how many plants.

In August, we began to see the fruits. No Iranian squash, which are great, by the way, sweet, flavorful, long keepers, or long-necked pumpkins, which are like giant butternuts, but there were cute little cheese pumpkins dotted here and there among the leaves, some hidden, some proudly showing. Lovely. When we really began to look toward harvest, we discovered the largest one wrapped around a corn stalk in the field beyond our fence. I called Andy, the farmer whose corn it was, to find out when he was combining, (that's COMbining) and that set the September 20 harvest date for that one.

Harvested from the compost pile
So far, I’ve cut nine cheese pumpkins of various sizes, given two away, and have got a bunch of  little guys still growing. Fun. And delicious. Soup – curried, or spiced with tomatoes and poblanos, or pumpkin vegetable with garbanzos and smoked paprika and cilantro -- pie, muffins, pumpkin spice cake, and of course, pumpkin butter.

Pumpkin Butter

1 cheese pumpkin (or any other dry-fleshed squash)
1 c. maple syrup
¼ cup apple juice
juice and zest of a lemon
1 tblsp ginger, or fresh-grated ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
dahs of salt

Cut one cheese pumpkin in half, scoop out the seeds (and save them to plant next year), and roast the halves on a cookie sheet  at 350F until you can easily scoop out the flesh (about 40 minutes, depending on the size of the squash). Let cool enough to handle, scoop out flesh and add with the other ingredients to an enameled iron pot (which distributes the heat evenly and is easier to keep the pumpkin butter from sticking, but a stainless pot will do just as well if you stand there and watch it).  Cook on medium-low heat, stirring frequently about 15-20 minutes until all ingredients are incorporated and the butter is smooth. (You may need to run a hand blender through it to get it smooth). Jar it and refrigerate.  If you put this in a sterilized jar with a sterilized lid and refrigerate it, the lid will probably draw and will keep the butter happily usable for months.  Otherwise, you’re probably looking at a week, maybe two.

Stink bug update from Bob

GIEI blog regular Bob Nixon has posted a 2013 stink bug update on his personal blog - go read!