Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book reviews: local/regional food gardening

This post has been on my list of things to do for months. Sorry for the delay, but consider it as a recommendation for winter reading/Christmas gifts.

There are many excellent food gardening books out there, but few of them are specific to our climate zone here in Maryland (USDA zone 7a, at least where I live). So it's immensely valuable to have two of them come out in the same year, especially since both are well-organized, useful additions to a gardening library.

Ira Wallace's Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast is a good reference for any food gardener, but I'd recommend it particularly to new gardeners, with the caveat that it does cover the entire southeast part of the U.S., so not every plant or technique mentioned is going to work here in the upper-upper southeast. The text specifies regional differences, however, so you'll just need to pass your eyes over what goes on in Georgia or Florida, and stick with what's realistic here.

The book starts with a "Gardening 101" section, continues into monthly to-do lists with information relevant to each part of the year, and also includes an alphabetical list of edibles with growing, harvesting and seed-saving information, plus recommended varieties. Throughout the book, you'll find tons of useful hints discovered through lots of on-the-ground experience. Just about everything you need to know to start and maintain a garden is touched on. You may want to seek out more detail elsewhere if you get interested in particular areas like composting or season extension, but all the basics are here in one easy-to-carry volume.

Ira is one of the founding members of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and grows in central Virginia. You can meet her and hear her speak at the upcoming Monticello Heritage Harvest Festival - she's a lovely person!

Pam Dawling manages the farm at Twin Oaks Community, also in central Virginia, and has a lot of experience with producing food for a large group of residents who depend on a regular, reliable supply of vegetables. She's translated this experience into a book called Sustainable Market Farming - but please don't stop reading here because you don't run a farm! I found this book to be extremely useful for planning and managing a vegetable garden as well, because it's based in real-life experience and is full of detailed specifics about developing plans, making the best use of space, planting, growing, dealing with pest problems, harvest/storage, etc. etc.

I'd recommend this book mainly for food gardeners with a year or more of experience, but beginners could benefit from it if they're not daunted by lots of charts and lists and nuggets of information. It's organized to be handy, and it's also well-written and even funny in places (why is this so unusual in gardening books?). I laughed reading this book, in a good way, and also made many "ooh!" noises of discovery and admiration. Also, the reference list is fantastic, if you want to pursue topics further.

You can follow Pam's adventures on the Sustainable Market Farming blog.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A few cucurbit links

Here are some links I've come across recently dealing with our plant family of the year.

The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange blog has advice about using winter squash as summer squash. Most of the squashes we let mature to fully ripe and consume as winter squash can also be eaten in their immature stage. This is particularly useful to know if your plant dies before the squash are "finished."

SESE photo: "winter" squash ready to be eaten immature
Jay, the "Scientific Gardener," writes about the best way to plant cucurbit seeds so that they maximize use of sunlight and get off to a stronger start.

And last - you all know my affection for mouse melons or Mexican sour gherkins, which taste like cucumbers and look like tiny watermelons and go by the scientific name Melothria scabra. They are a member of the Cucurbitaceae that are not hardy in this region, though they tend to come up year after year from the seed in dropped fruits very nicely.

Well, there is also a member of that genus native to our region, Creeping Cucumber or Melothria pendula, which you can read about here at Eat the Weeds. Of course I now want to grow this, if I can find seed. I found out about it through a Facebook post by the Maryland Native Plant Society, which says that "There is reportedly a large colony of Creeping Cucumber along the floodplain of the Anacostia River at the U.S. National Arboretum, in D.C. It also grows at the edge of Shell-Marl Ravine Forest at Flag Ponds Nature Park, Calvert County, Maryland. Brown and Brown, in their 1984 book “Herbaceous Plants of Maryland,” report it from Prince George’s County, Maryland, and it was discovered a couple of years ago in the City of Alexandria, Virginia."

comment on my linked mouse melon post above mentioned black mouse melons, which I strongly suspect were Melothria pendula, since they turn black at full ripeness (and shouldn't be eaten at that stage). Melothria scabra doesn't do this, at least not in my experience - they stay green until they fall off the plant.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Review: Indigo Apple Tomato

I really didn't need to buy any new tomato seeds this year, but occasionally I just can't resist trying something that's hyped up in catalogs, and the blue tomatoes from Wild Boar Farms in California grabbed my attention. (They are not actually blue all over, but the photos were striking.) So I ordered the Indigo Apple and have grown it successfully (one plant at least; it's been a tough year for tomatoes chez moi).

Reviews were very mixed on the internet, so I was curious. My personal conclusion: I'd grow this one again. It was the earliest producer of my eight plants except for Isis Candy Cherry, which snuck in right ahead, and it's been extremely prolific. You can see that the plant has early blight, but so do they all at this point, and it's hanging in there. Flavor is good, not the most extraordinary tomato I've ever tasted, but solid and a nice balance of acid and sweet. The two-inch fruits start out green with blue shoulders, and finish up red with the blue still mostly there: it's an eye-catching look.

Indigo Apples in the center, with a couple of Gypsy to the right, one Orange Icicle to the left, and some Isis Candy at top.

I did hear that in our Tomato Room at the recent GIEI event, the purple and blue tomatoes were getting lots of "ugliest" votes (a Black Prince eventually won; I though it was lovely), so I want to put in a plug for these unusual-looking fruits. Not only do they have higher levels of antioxidants than other tomatoes, but they taste good too!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Cucurbits in green and white

Another view of one of the many beautiful gourds from the one volunteer plant that has taken over multiple yards of space at the Derwood Demo Garden (do not plant this in your 100-square-foot plot!). There are so many enormous gourds on the fence now that it's falling over; we had to prop it up with stakes.

It's a species of gourd that has white flowers, open only early in the morning.

And from an entirely different though related plant:

This is a scallop squash called Patisson Panaché Vert et Blanc. It's very lovely, but I found it when it was rather on the mature side, which is when it develops its finest coloring but has a tough skin and big seeds; you should really pick them at about three inches wide and still pale green. I also discovered at the same time (a few days after thoroughly exploring the plants, I swear) three yellow crookneck squash that had turned almost orange and hard as a rock on the outside.

None of these seemed likely to have the best flavor for baking like a winter squash, and the insides were still tender, so what I ended up doing was laboriously peeling them, scooping out the seeds, and then grating the flesh in a food processor. I also grated (in my first experiment) a sweet potato, and (in the second experiment) some onion and mildly hot pepper, mixed the vegetables up with an egg (or two if needed to moisten everything), salt and pepper, and a few tablespoons of chickpea flour, along with a tablespoon or so each of sesame seeds and flax seeds, for a protein and flavor boost. Then I made the mix into patties and fried them in oil. Both times we ate them with a salad containing beans (out of a can - don't have my own dried beans yet) and delicious homegrown tomatoes.

This is a very good year for discussion about what to do with all the squash - but summer squash that's a bit past its prime is a different challenge than huge zucchini that are still tender all through. Some years I've just grated the flesh, stuffed it in bags and stored it in the freezer until I got inspired!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Grow It Eat It is everywhere!

Or, at least, in surprising places. This is at the Germantown branch of Montgomery County Public Libraries.

Have you seen this sign in your community?