Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Giving Thanks

With Thanksgiving coming  up, I'm thinking about all the things I have to be thankful for.  But since this is a vegetable gardening blog, I'll give thanks to the wonderful gardening year which has produced such a wonderful bounty of vegetables since early April (wintered over kale and spinach) and continues right up though today.

Spring crops included beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, fennel, lettuce, potatoes and turnips.

Summer crops, of course, included lots of tomatoes (both paste and slicing), peppers and onions for sauce, green beans, butternut squash and lots of other cucurbits.

However, the highlight of the summer was picking black raspberries with Tyler.  This is his favorite berry and he eats them by the handful.  Any extra berries and either frozen for winter blueberry/ black raspberry cobbler or turned into jelly.

Fall has been great with the highlight being the Romanesco which is a green nutty flavored cauliflower and the purple Grafitti which looks great on a raw dip tray.

Prior to the early freeze up, I went out and mulched in a lot of my fall root vegetables and am picking them for Thanksgiving dinner.  Shown are celeriac (used when making mashed garlic potatoes), rutabagas, beets, carrots leeks and Brussels sprouts which the freeze didn't bother.

So, all in all, its been a great gardening year and I'm looking forward to starting cool weather vegetable seeds under my fluorescent lights in February.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Big squash update

Since my previous post on the subject, I've decided that my enormous squashes are perhaps not Rogosa Violina, but in fact Piena di Napoli (which are still green on the outside when ripe). I know, I should do a better job at labeling, but sometimes labels vanish or I am convinced that I'll remember.

Anyway, it turned out that the plant had produced not two but three fantastically large squashes - one of them was completely hidden under my Malabar spinach vines, and emerged when I cleaned them up after a frost.

I baked another of the huge butternut-relative fruits.

Interior, seed end

Slices of the neck end
Interestingly, the seed and neck ends have different textures, the neck end being hard and smooth and the seed end softer, with a cooked texture almost like spaghetti squash though not forming long enough tendrils to treat as "pasta." This squash, if I'm identifying it right, is used in pasta traditionally, and also to make jam, which I have not tried yet. I have another uncooked squash to play with still, though, and a lot of frozen cooked flesh.

What I have made, besides soup: squash bread with lots of spices in it. Squash and Stilton Biscuits (warning: I found the "moist dough" warning was an understatement, and had to add lots more flour just to be able to handle the dough at all. Also, they are very rich, so make them for a crowd). And squash pizza dough (perfect for a Neapolitan squash!).

I could give you a recipe (I based mine on one by Deborah Madison) but if you already make pizza dough from scratch you probably have a favorite method. Just add about 1/3 to 3/4 cup of cooked pureed squash to the dough, depending on how much the recipe makes (low end for one pizza, high end for two or more). You may need to cut back on other liquids and/or add flour. Dough should be springy and moist but not so sticky you can't knead it. I also added some fresh marjoram that was about to freeze outside.

Here's my finished pizza, topped with leftover greens (with onion), a bit of Gorgonzola cheese, and bacon.

closeup of golden squashy crust
I need to learn not to put too many toppings on homemade pizza, because the center never bakes solid. Maybe pre-baking the crust briefly would help? I've got another batch of dough in the freezer to do something with. The logical topping for Squash Pizza 2.0 would be… squash.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What did we learn? Tips and highlights from 2014 Grow100 - 4-Rs Gardening and New to Gardening categories

I was impressed by the ingenuity, determination, and gardening skill of the contestants. Here are some of the highlights from two of the three categories:

4-Rs Gardening (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rethink)

Laura Gillen built a cold frame from recycled materials, depends on rain barrels, saves seeds, recycles window screens for fencing materials, uses branches and nylons for support, pillowcases, and is emphasizing perennials in her vegetable garden.

Laura's earth-friendly cold frame and rain barrels
Alison Rolen salvaged wood for her raised beds, visits construction sites for materials she can use in the garden, uses rain barrels, collects bean seed, and washes and re-uses plant tags.

New to gardening
Germantown Library
Germantown Library planted two red plastic trash cans in front of the Germantown, MD public library. The containers did not produce a lot of food but attracted considerable interest and there are plans for improving the project for 2015.

David Marcovitz protected his garden from Bambi and Associates with pvc pipe frames covered with deer netting. He advises to eat the leaves of broccoli plants (cook them like kale) if they don’t produce heads. Be on the look-out (and hand-pick) caterpillars that will devour broccoli, kale, and cauliflower planted in late summer for a fall harvest.

David's deer protection

Main Grow100 page

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Joe the Gardener: Still Resting on His Hoe Handle after 68 Years

Joe the Gardener

No one’s ever given me a horse, so I’ve never looked a gift horse in the mouth.  But recently a friend gifted me with a copy of Successful Gardening, a paperback collection of wisdom compiled by the Men’s Garden Club of Montgomery County in 1969, and on a cold November night, with snowflakes falling as a cold front approached, I picked up the deteriorating paperback and took a look.

Many features of the book clearly indicate its age:  Price of $1.75—hey, a single-dip Baskin-Robbins ice-cream cone now costs $2.79.  Only black-and-white photo illustrations plus a few line drawings.  An uninspiring—by today’s publishing standards—cover of line drawings of black ink on light-yellow cover stock.

Inside, about 30 chapters, all written by men, focus mostly on gardening basics (landscaping, soils and fertilizers, and composts and mulches, for example) and perennial flowers, such as chrysanthemums, azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias, and irises.

Since I’m a vegetable-centric gardener, I looked for chapters on edibles.  I found two.  J. Levine contributed “The Garden of Eatin’” and Edward Wichers followed with “Ramblings of a Compulsive Gardener.”

Levine concentrates on veggies. Since I’m a tomato freak, I scribbled the names of the 11 varieties he recommended and checked them against the index of the 2014 Tomato Growers Supply Company.  I found four: Rutgers, Heinz 1350, Heinz 1439, and Big Boy on both lists.  Missing from today’s list are seven: Queen’s Knight, Campbell 146, Sunray, Pinkshipper, Marion, Superman, and Moreton, though they may be available from heirloom seed companies.   Tomato growers Levine and Nixon would have little to talk about if they could meet in 2014 to discuss tomato varieties.

And early on in his essay, Levine pointed out what must be a hard-learned lesson for some gardeners:  “Don’t raise vegetables to save money.  You won’t.  If I kept records, I suspect I would have earned less than 10 cents an hour for my time.  It’s the fun, flavor, and exercise that count—in that order.”  Well put, Mr. J. Levine.  That reminded me of William Alexander’s 2006 book, The $64 Tomato.

Levine directs readers to the University of Maryland Extension’s Leaflet No. 15 of the “most suitable Maryland vegetable varieties.”  Today the Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers a similar online brochure, Publication HG70, “Recommended Vegetable Cultivars for Maryland Home Gardens.”  Again I compared Levine’s list of tomatoes with the list of 49 recommended cultivars in HG70 and found only two on both lists: Rutgers and Big Boy. 

Wichers deals more with fruits and confesses his frustrations with tree fruits:  “Trial of the tree fruits was fun, but too demanding in proportion to the rewards.  The insect and fungus enemies of apples, plums, and peaches are varied and stubborn, and combated very successfully without equipment of the kind used in commercial orchards.”  He recommended small fruits—strawberries, raspberries, and grapes—coupled with “eternal vigilance” to prevent devastation by ever-present pests.

Reading between the lines and with historical hindsight, I thought the two chapters hinted at beginnings of gardening procedures embraced by many gardeners today—increasing use of hybrid vegetables to get around the pest problem and use of less toxic (to humans) pesticides.

And when I turned to the chapter following Wichers’, I started smiling.  It explained why the Men’s Gardening Club was established in 1946: “to redress the imbalance occasioned by the proliferation of women’s garden clubs organized in the wake of the famous wartime gardens of the early 1940’s.”   While GI Joe was fighting in Europe and Asia, Rosie the Riveter took over the airplane factory and Ginny the Gardener took over the home garden.

But I smiled even more as I read on:  Within a year, the club held its first “Ladies Night,” with the men serving refreshments and receiving prices for their “culinary productions.  The judges—all women—devised enough classifications, such as roundest cookie, biggest mess in the kitchen, etc. so every male chef received a first prize.”  Smart judges, those women!

Apparently all those blue ribbons paid off.  A quick search of the Internet showed that the Men’s Garden Club of Montgomery County exits today as the Metropolitan Washington Garden Club, with new members welcome without regard to gender or place of residence.

But one thing remains of the old club—its humorous mascot, Joe, who appears on both the title page of the 1969 book and prominently on the current club’s web page.  The old book explained:  “His doleful look comes from the burden he carries for all the members….  When he sows grass seed all the starlings gather.  He has the most crab grass and it all goes to seed.  If there is a Japanese beetle within miles, it’s on Joe’s roses.  The way the moles tunnel his lawn you would think this was the terminus of the District Subway.  Joe comes in spirit to our meetings….  He is always with us so we can laugh at ourselves.  Come over and visit us sometime.”
Gardening has changed in many ways since 1969, but today’s gardeners can still smile about Joe's challenges, his starlings, crab grass, Japanese beetles, and moles.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

What did we learn? Tips and highlights from 2014 Grow100 - Maximum Production Category

Now that the Grow100 competition is complete and our winners have been congratulated, we wanted to take a moment and highlight some other great gardens that were sent in.  The following are highlights from those participating in the Maximum Production category:

The National Gardening Association estimates the average U.S. food garden produces ½ lb. of food/square foot. Jonathan Coppola produced three times that amount in his community garden plot in Baltimore (150 lb. in 90 sq. ft.)! He used block planting and equidistant spacing (plants in a group spaced the same distance apart in each direction) and tracked his progress using charts, diaries, and data sheets. “I use bio intensive farming methods taught by John Jeavons, and Ecology Action. Rather than crowd plants, or plant them in rows, I give crops like lettuce three to five inches on each side, resulting in a hexagonal pattern.” In addition to growing transplants under fluorescent lights indoors, Jonathan uses outdoor seedbeds to produce the plants he needs for succession planting and harvesting. He also uses wire frames to cover his plants with clear plastic or floating row cover to extend both ends of the growing season.
Jonathan Coppola's garden with row cover

Rasma Plato’s favorite vegetable was kohlrabi. Rasma observed that “interplanting borage, calendula, alyssum and sunflowers helped attract beneficial insects as well as a skink. My team of allies has helped control some of the harmful insects.” If we had a garden writing category Rasma would have been our grand winner. Here’s an excerpt from Rasma’s first update:

The sun is shining in a previously shady part of my yard. The nourishing light beckons to my seed collection. I must confess, I have a seed-collecting habit. The seed catalogs that arrive in winter are full of promise. I still find it hard to believe that something so tiny grows into dinner with some care, soil, sun and water.

Eating freshly picked produce grown a few feet from the kitchen is nourishment for the body and for the spirit. A summer garden without fresh vegetables, herbs and fruit only feeds sadness.

The intense desire for a crisp cucumber, a tender bean and sweet basil became the driving force for starting a farm in the basement. A shop light rigged to tulip crates hovered over trays of fluffy soil mix entrusted with those tiny specks of hope. The process began in late February, delayed by a cold that left me bedridden for days. I cheered every seed that sprouted and sowed new seeds in the trays where none would grow. Many more seeds would sleep in their packets until it was time to be sown directly in the garden soil that was amended with compost made of slowly decaying leaves, peels, coffee grounds and some mysterious items from the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator.

Kim Roman likes to experiment. She planted a 3-ft. X 8-ft. hügelkultur, “a German method where you dig a trench and put in logs then compost; branches and sticks then more compost, sod turned upside down with soil. On top of this I used more Mel's Mix (as noted in the Square Foot Garden).” She planted her 18-in. high hügelkultur with shade tolerant plants on the shady side and sun-lovers on the sunny side. The root crops- turnip, carrot, radish- grew exceptionally well using this system. By Check-in #2 Kim had harvested over 100 lbs. from her 100 square feet. Kim lets about 10% of her heirloom crops go to seed so she can collect seed for next year’s crops.

Kim's hügelkultur

Nathan Parrish produced high tomato yields per square foot by training the plants to a single stem, thus allowing closer plant spacing. One San Marzano plum tomato plant produced 150 fruit! And one Better Boy tomato plant produced 42 fruits weighing 10-16 ounces each. Nathan advises gardeners to make their own compost from fallen tree leaves and keep a log so you can learn from your experiences.

Pam Leifer used square foot garden techniques, deer fence, and an automated soaker hose watering system to produce a continuous harvest.

The demo garden operated by Montgomery Co. Master Gardeners produced an astonishing 380 lbs. of produce (almost 8X the national average!!) through October 14 “using compact but productive varieties, succession planting, and planting vertically.”
Derwood Demo Garden