Monday, September 29, 2014

This year's best veggies

The year is not over yet in the Derwood Demo Garden - we hope to keep producing well into the fall and even winter, and to add quite a bit to our current total of 1471 pounds donated to Manna Food Center (well over twice last year's total). But the end of September is a good time to sit back a little and assess what worked well and what didn't.

I consulted with co-veggie-leader Robin Ritterhoff and Super-Intern Bill Newman about what the best performing vegetables of the year were, and here's a partial list of things we thought extraordinary, with the emphasis on what we hadn't grown before.

photo by Darlene Nicholson
Ground Cherries. I had never successfully grown these little sweet bites of goodness before, but Robin had, and she said both at home and in the demo garden they had a fantastic year. They are a member of the nightshade family, and the fruits grow in little husks as do tomatillos, but the taste is quite different. Mm.

We also grew another nightshade family member called Wonderberry or Sunberry, a plant developed by Luther Burbank in the early 20th century, which resembles some of its more poisonous relatives (I had to keep defending it against well-meaning weeders) and produces small black berries that should make good jam if you grew enough plants. We only had one, so we snacked; some of us liked the taste and some thought it was unpleasant. This is the sort of plant that needs to come with a warning NOT to assume similar fruit is edible - know where your seeds came from! - but it's worth trying if you like novelties.

Tomatoes. Now, the DDG tomato patch did very poorly on the whole this year - some combination of stressed plants and compacted soil, plus disease - but there were exceptions, and my own patch in the community garden did very well. I've already reviewed Indigo Apple, but its sister plant from Wild Boar Farms, Indigo Blue Berries, was a late starter at the demo garden but caught up fast and is still going strong.

The unripe fruits are startlingly all-blue and shiny, and then develop some red color as they ripen.

They have a pleasant taste with a good balance of sweet and acid. Robin says they crack much less easily than Sungold, and look fantastic in a salad with those favorite sweet orange tomatoes.

Other tomatoes that have done well for me this year include the prolific, large-fruited sauce tomato Polish Linguisa (its only fault being that the green fruits fall off spontaneously if you so much as threaten to touch them, so I've had a lot of indoor ripeners through the season), and the modest-sized green-and-red Gypsy, which provided lovely flavor and bountiful harvests. I've also had some delicious Brandywines and Abruzzos, but those aren't new to me. I was less than thrilled with Isis Candy Cherry, which spoiled easily, and unfortunately my Aunt Ruby's German Green plant was shadowed by an enormous volunteer sunflower that I couldn't bring myself to pull out (but the one at the DDG produced some nice-tasting green fruits).

Other plants worthy of mention include spring-grown heirloom kales Lark's Tongue and Hanover Salad - it was a great year for kale and other greens in general, due to lower temperatures and lack of harlequin bugs - and Dixie Speckled Butterpea bush lima beans, which produced a large crop all at once in late August. I've tried pole limas at the DDG before with no luck, because the frost hit before they'd matured, so bush limas seem to be the way to go. Next year is GIEI's Year of the Bean, so expect plenty more of these!

We also produced some lovely Cranberry Beans, which were grown out to dry stage and then cooked to share at a GIEI meeting. Unfortunately they turn a uniform brown when boiled instead of maintaining the gorgeous variegation, but the taste is meaty and excellent.

Since this is the Year of Cucurbits, I have to share our great (and unusual) successes in that realm, due largely to lack of the usual pests rather than to any innovative strategies in combating them (there's always next year). We had more cucumbers than ever before; I wish I could tell you which varieties did best, but they grew over each other so avidly I couldn't tell one vine from the next. The vegetable garden grew some lovely gourds by accident, and the children's garden grew many more on purpose.

We even had melons, which usually don't do well for us: some little Savor Charentais and some Sweet Granite muskmelons (some of which were supposed to be bitter gourd but got mislabeled, oh well). Thanks to Bill's impulse buy at an Asian market, we've had prolific Mao Gwa fuzzy gourds, which cook up nicely once you've removed the hairs, and we still have winter squash coming along. And of course the mouse melons did splendidly.

photo by Darlene Nicholson
We also managed to produce a watermelon in a container: this is the relatively new Sugar Pot cultivar. Okay, only one small watermelon, but it's nice to know you can do it.

The real stars (and donation weight providers) have been the summer squash, especially our stalwart Tromboncino (climbing up and overwhelming its large trellis). Several ground-dwelling relatives produced well also, but all other zucchini were put to shame by lovely and delicious (even at, ahem, rather excessive sizes) Costata Romanesco, which is the variety I'll turn to in preference from now on.

Here are its scallop-edged slices brightening up a stir-fry: firm, meaty, and pretty too. Despite the plants having developed powdery mildew in August, it's still producing squash, if not quite as exuberantly as earlier in the season.

photo by Darlene Nicholson

And in root vegetable land, I'll mention our fingerling potatoes, which turned out really more like hands than fingers.

Please share your favorite varieties of the year in the comments!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Quick and easy tomato-sweet potato sauce

Polish Linguisa tomato shaped like a penguin. Because.
My tomatoes are close to being finished for the season, but until recently we were being occasionally overwhelmed by the production of only eight plants (or really five, because three never amounted to much) and after I got back from a trip I found myself with many ripe tomatoes and no time to make tomato sauce the long-cooking way - and needed something to put on the ravioli! So here was my quick solution:

Tomato Sweet-Potato Sauce

You can vary the amount of sauce produced depending on how many tomatoes you want to use up. I started with about 5 medium-sized tomatoes and one sweet potato.

Trim any unripe or nasty bits off the tomatoes (no need to peel) and cut them into quarters or eighths depending on size. Paste-type tomatoes, or other solid-fleshed ones, work better for this, but whatever you have will do fine. It works best to scoop out some of the seeds and watery pulp, but you don't need to get it all. (I have generally been letting cut tomatoes sit in a colander over a bowl and mushing them down a bit to extract juice - which can be saved for other purposes - but didn't bother with that this time.) Put the tomato pieces into a blender and puree.

Cook the sweet potato(es) - 5 minutes in the microwave will do it for all but the largest (make sure to pierce with a fork first). Scrape out the flesh and add it to the blender, then puree that too.

The resulting sauce was thick enough for me to use without further cooking down, but if yours is thin, put it into a pot and cook it on the stove for a while until it's thicker. Season as desired (salt and pepper, oregano, thyme, etc.) and then use as a pasta sauce or however you want. I cooked some vegetables separately and then added the sauce, and used it on top of vegetable-and-cheese-stuffed ravioli. Nice red-orange color and sweet-tart taste!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Carroll County Grow It Eat It concludes a successful 2014

How time flies.  It seems like yesterday since the first GIEI gardening class of 2014 but somehow we've completed another nine month Grow It Eat It program year, delivering great programs and receiving great feedback from our customers.  We asked ourselves back in January if the snow and cold would ever diminish and let us execute on the promised eight weekly (sixteen topic) gardening classes to our faithful attendees.

We averaged just over 50 visitors each week who learned about Getting started in the Garden and Raised Bed Gardening; Knowing your Soil; Seed Saving; Cucurbits; Herbs; Container Gardening; Square Foot Gardening; IPM (pest and disease management); Pollination and Pollinators; the Good, the Bad and the Ugly bugs; Extending the Gardening Season; Backyard Greenhouses; Kitchen gardens; CSAs (community supported agriculture); Small fruits and Tree fruits.  We concluded our class room discussions with a session on Companion planting.  During each session we treated our attendees with a great treat and cooking demonstration.

By mid March we were busy planning our monthly Twilight Meetings.  Beginning April and continuing the third Monday evening of each month, we delivered six well attended gardening programs to interested public.  Our topics included Pruning; Tomatoes

and Vertical Gardening; Drip Irrigation; Composting and Garden Diseases; Seed Saving; Cover Crops and Winterizing the Garden.  In total, we delivered 1720 hours of learning to our customers.  We often hear reference to "it takes a community" to be successful.

Our community is a dedicated group of Master Gardeners who make up a fantastic team.  We focus on our mission then plan and deliver while having fun at the same time. I"m proud to be part of such a dedicated group of volunteers. Now it's off to begin planning another fantastic Grow It Eat It program for 2015.  See you there.  Butch Willard