Sunday, March 1, 2015

Growing Hominy Corn at Home

Hominy is one of those foods that doesn't make it into the cover-photos of many fancy food magazines. It may have a better chance than chitlins, but not by a whole lot. I know, though, that hominy is delicious, which is saying a lot about a food I've only ever eaten canned.

It never occurred to me to try to grow the right kind of corn and make my own hominy until this past week, when I was reading at Indian Country Today, in an article written by Anna Jefferson, about an heirloom corn being grown out for seed at Wah-Zha-Zhi Cultural Center in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, for the Osage Nation.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Still Winter, but Dreaming of Spring

It looks like this is going to be one of those awkward years when the plants and the weather aren't quite in sync. Daffodils began blooming in my yard over the weekend, but there is a drop to 11 degrees F expected on Wednesday. That drop in temperature will make a mess of my daffodils. The pink camellia blossoms aren't going to take that drop well, either. Wilted, drooping, soggy, browned flowers definitely are not part of the spring dream!

The hopeful news is that the tips of trout-lily leaves are beginning to emerge by the back fence. I use the blooming of those plants as a signal to begin planting peas, and then a week or two later the potatoes. Some years, the flowers of my trout lilies are up in abundance by the last week in February, but it may be the first week in March before I see many of those flowers this year.

Those two plantings -- the peas and potatoes -- begin the cascade of springtime activity in my garden. Lettuces, spinach, beets, and more cool-season crops will be seeded directly into the soil in that same time of beginning, and from there the planting flows fairly steadily on, right through May.

While I am waiting on the trout lilies, I have tiny plants to tend indoors. Tomato seedlings have begun their unfolding in the flat that I started on Feb. 8, a little more than a week ago. Tending those, and then the peppers and eggplants that will share the flat as they germinate and grow (always taking a little longer to emerge than the tomatoes...), will keep my gardening-energies engaged in the meantime.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Almost Seed-Starting Time

Well, it's almost time to start seeds of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants here in my area, so of course I've jumped the gun. The weather this past weekend was glorious, and I spent part of it out on the back deck setting up the first flat of those long-time-to-maturity vegetables. I added some tomatillo seeds, too.

I wrote a guest-post about seed-starting for UGA's Community Gardening blog that was posted last week, and I included two links near the end for some UGA publications about seed starting. Any beginners at seed-starting might want to check out those links, because the explanations (and illustrations!) they contain are more complete than I could fit into a blog post.

The usual garden vegetable seeds are fairly easy to germinate, partly because they are for annual plants; the seeds have simple needs for temperature, light, and water that are easy to fulfill by mimicking springtime indoors. Seeds for shrubs and other perennial plants often have additional requirements for aging, for cold-storage (mimicking winter!), and for having traveled through an animal's guts, and this winter I have been working with seeds for jujube bushes that are in this category of persnickety seeds.
Bag with 4 jujube seeds in sphagnum, stapled to instructions.

My friend Eddie brought me four jujube fruits last fall, and I have been following instructions I found online through SF Gate to prepare those seeds for spring. After eating the fruits (tasted like apples!), I soaked the seeds for about an hour, then scrubbed the remaining stuck-on fruit off the seeds. Then, I placed the seeds in a paper bag, in the dark, to dry and "finish ripening" for a couple of months. Then, I put the seeds in a ziploc bag with some damp sphagnum moss, and put that whole shebang into the fridge.

The plastic bag is stapled to the brown bag the seeds "ripened" in with a note that says the seeds can come out of the fridge anytime after February 10. That's this week! There are several more steps ahead to get those seeds ready to germinate, but I am hopeful that the process will work. Wish me luck?

Friday, February 6, 2015

That Seed-Buying Time of Year

If your inbox looks anything like mine at this time of year, it is crammed with messages from seed companies that are hoping we all will  buy more seeds. This year, a great little ad came to my email from Park seed company that hints at how much money we can all save by buying seeds.

The ad reads:

Home Gardens Save Money

On average, a family that spends $50 on seeds and fertilizer will produce $1,250 in produce!

While I totally agree that home gardens can be a great source of less-expensive, healthy food for families, I have known people with quite small gardens to spend this much and harvest much less. Hopefully, though, all of my gardening friends have developed cost-effective plans to make the most out of whatever space is available for their gardens.

One of my gardening friends and I have worked out our annual seed-buying deal that saves us both a little money. This year, I will be placing our joint order for seeds from Sandhill Preservation, and she will be in charge of the order from Baker Creek/Rare Seeds. We will be getting together this weekend to finalize and place our orders. This is always a great way to spend time with a gardening friend!

I am not ordering as many seed packets as usual, because I have a surprisingly large supply of seeds in the fridge that are still new enough to have good-enough germination rates. As seeds age, they lose viability, and they can get so old that they just won't grow. That aging-time varies with crop type, but I seem to have bought a lot of seeds in the past couple of years. Very few packets have date stamps further back than 2012.

This weekend is forecast to be warm and sunny, with highs up around 60 degrees F. I plan to spend some of that beautiful weather pruning berry-canes, the persimmon, and the plum. Hope that everyone else has a great, garden-filled weekend!







Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Tale of Two Kales

Actually, I told part of the story in the previous post. My curly kale made it though our drop to Very Cold Temperatures undamaged, but the Red Russian ended up with some bleaching on the older leaves. There is more to know, though, about these two crops.

The purple-stemmed Red Russian, according to my seed catalogs (which I finally have had a chance to look through!), should grow to be fairly large, 18-30 inches in height, but I haven't seen it get bigger than the lower end of that range so far. However, we may be eating it faster than it can grow! Most of the catalogs seem to indicate that this kale is more cold-hardy than it turned out to be in my North Georgia garden.

The other kale that I grew this year is the Vates dwarf blue curled. If I had realized how truly dwarf it would be, I would have spaced the plants closer together. I'm ordering seeds for a larger curled kale to grow next, because I want bigger leaves.

Both of these kale varieties taste good to me, but they are definitely different. Leaves of the Red Russian are MUCH more tender and taste sweeter to me. The Vates dwarf curled has tougher leaves; for salad, I chop them very small and let them stand in the dressing for a couple of hours before attempting to eat the them.

Even though they are dwarf, the curliness means that there is more actual leaf for their size than for the Red Russian, so it takes fewer leaves to fill my salad bowl. Mixing the two kinds of kale in one salad, though, makes it lovely to behold and even better to eat.

For both, even though many gardeners say that kale tastes the same when grown right through the summer, the catalogs agree that kale tastes better when grown in cold weather. The cold prompts the plant to store more sugars in the leaves as protection against freezing (sugar-water freezes at a lower temperature than plain water).

I talked with a friend today, though, who really doesn't like kale, even when it is winter-grown. Since she is an outgoing person who hangs out with gardeners and since kale is so very popular right now, she is faced with many-a bowl full of kale, prepared one way or another.

She is a good sport and eats the kale even when she'd rather not, but for other gardeners, the ease of growing such a nutritious, mild-flavored vegetable that stands in the garden through the winter makes it easy to include some in the winter garden. The only question for those gardeners will be which one, or several, to grow.

Monday, January 19, 2015

After the Big Freeze...

It's been well over a week since the Big Freeze (when the temperature dropped to around 12 degrees F), but I only just today worked up the nerve to look under the covers in my garden, to check on the broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. The results of my efforts to protect my crops were mixed.

In the good news category, the unharvested broccoli under the heaviest cover looks amazingly good. I am hoping that growth will continue and I'll be able to harvest heads that are larger than 2 inches diameter (the size they are now). The cabbages under the thinner cover also look good, but under both weights of covers all the cauliflower -- the least hardy of the group -- have died. The few remaining broccoli under the thinner cover didn't completely die, but the flowering heads that I had been hoping to eat were damaged beyond saving.

For the plants left uncovered by anything but hope, outcomes also were mixed. Some outer leaves of the collards and red kale were bleached by the cold, but those bleached leaves are not wilted, and the newer, inner leaves look fine. The curly kale and the carrots appear to be completely undamaged. The spinach looks fine, the parsley and cilantro have some limp-looking leaves among the healthier ones, but all the leaves on all the radishes and beets have turned mushy.

I pulled up the dead plants, but beyond that I haven't done any real work in the garden today, because we have taken this three-day weekend to rearrange the garage.  All of my physical work has been given over to shifting shelves, boxes, tools, the rabbits and their enclosures, bins of toys and household stuff, and more, to make a working space for Joe to build a boat.

We have been in this house for a long time, and the garage had been full of the accumulated stuff of life in the suburbs while raising two boys, so thinning out and rearranging has been a big job. Finishing the job will take more than one long weekend, really, but while Joe is working out which of his final two choices of boat to build, we are busy making room for the project.

Otherwise, my big task for the weekend has been to order some seed potatoes. Last year I was unable to find any Irish Cobbler potatoes for planting, so this year I made sure to order them early.




Sunday, January 11, 2015

Thinking About Seeds

Last Thursday I spoke about Planning for Seed Saving for the local Master Gardener group, then the next day I gave an open-to-the-public "Lunch & Learn" presentation about Vermicompost, and on Monday, I will be talking about Organic Gardening for the Marietta Garden Club.

This may all sound disconnected and crazy (and maybe like I'm some kind of amazing sucker for saying "yes" to three requests for different topics so close together); however, in my mind, this all ties together in a way that makes total sense.

As I plan my garden for the year, in working out when to plant which varieties to allow for my little efforts at seed-saving, having the information fresh in my mind from giving the talk is a huge help. I will be starting seeds in February for some crops, and my vermicompost will come in handy at that time.

There are two main streams of thought when it comes to starting seeds. One is that you should use a completely sterile starting mix to minimize the risk of damping off as the seedlings develop; the other is that you should use a starting mix with so many beneficial microorganisms that they out-compete the damping off fungus. Also, I've run across a few studies that indicate that mixing as much as 20% by volume of vermicompost with the usual seed-starting medium actually enhances seed germination and seedling vigor.

I'm running with that second group for most of my seed starting this year (although I will still have some of those Jiffy Pellet seed-starting sets in my office, for demonstration purposes). The vermicompost that I have harvested from my little worm bin will come in handy as I begin to set up my flats for spring seeds.

Supporting beneficial microorganisms within the soil community is key to organic gardening. When I transplant those seedlings that got their start in an environment that is rich in microbial life, my organically-managed garden can only benefit.

I'm looking forward to the last of these three getting-ready-for-gardening talks!

As a bonus, along the way, I've had the joy of hanging out with many other gardeners, three work-days in a row, exchanging ideas as we all gear up for spring.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Seed Saving Surprise

I gave a presentation on "Planning for Seed Saving" last night to my county's Master Gardeners  -- some of my most favorite people! Among other things, I talked about legal issues (patented seeds) and biological aspects that can affect choices gardeners might make about saving seeds from their own crops to replant in subsequent years.

One aspect of the process that I mentioned is removing plants that are showing undesirable traits from the garden, to keep those plants from cross-pollinating with the other plants that have traits you want.

If the plants with less desirable traits flower and pollinate the "good" plants, then those less-good traits likely will appear in your next generation of the crop.  Removing "rogue" plants helps keep the next generation of the crop productive and wonderful, so this practice makes total sense.

However, even when we are trying to maintain a variety with its original traits, in selecting which seeds to save for the next crop, we sometimes make choices that change it anyway!

After the talk, one of my seed-saving friends shared her experience with a Southern pea she'd been saving and replanting. Each year, she'd saved "the prettiest" seeds from the crop to replant. After about a decade of saving pretty seeds, she found the original packet that she'd started with, and it had seeds in it.

She dumped out the seeds and found -- in a grand surprise -- that they looked very different from the seeds she'd saved from this summer's crop of what was supposed to be the exact same variety!

Gardening is never boring.




Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Southern Vegetables

There's a reason Bob Wills' song "That's What I Like About the South" includes turnip greens, black eyed peas, candied yams, buttered beans, and corn bread. The basis for each of those foods grows reliably and well here. The cool-weather vegetable in that list, turnip greens, is almost a fool-proof crop. However, there are plenty of crops that are less reliable producers in Southern gardens.

In years like this one, when my broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbages all are slow to head up, I remind myself that such Northern vegetables can't be expected to do consistently well in the South. Some years the garden produces big, full heads of all of those by Thanksgiving. This year, the heads on most of those plants aren't even close to what I consider a good size. If we get a hard freeze any time soon, I probably will be bringing in a lot of ridiculously small vegetables.

Many of the carrots aren't full sized yet, either, but those will continue to grow slowly underground through all kinds of weather.  It may be March before I pull the last one, but eventually those all will be brought into the kitchen.

Luckily, this year I planted plenty of kale and collard greens and a few bok choy. Greens don't seem to be delayed the way the heading vegetables are by an early hard freeze that's followed by weeks of warmer weather.

Even better, we haven't had a hard enough freeze to turn the winter radishes to mush yet, either, so we still are enjoying those, thinly sliced then salted.

To celebrate the South and its vegetables here on the last day of the year:







Sunday, December 21, 2014

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Really, this ought to be a thoughtful, beautifully written note to the world; it's the winter solstice, which means we have increasing light ahead, and this is (according to blogspot) my 500th post. You'd think I'd have planned better and be ready with something glorious.

Instead, I can only say that I still really love to work in my garden, to harvest what it offers, to learn from it, and to share what I've learned. I've lived here now for almost 25 years, and I started planting almost right away. There were some pretty huge errors that I probably should be embarrassed about, but at the time(s) I didn't know any better.

I wish I could say that each year my garden gets better and more productive, but it still has ups and downs. Every year, though, it engages me just as much.

In these days of least light, my plans for the new year are a bit murky. Seed catalogs are piling up by my chair, but I haven't had a chance to spend much time with them. To be honest, new varieties don't call to me the way they used to. I have developed a list of favorite varieties that I look forward to each year. I will probably add a couple of new things again, but I don't change the garden up as much as in the early days of my gardening here.  It could be that my age is showing, but if finding joy in favorite vegetables is a sign of old age, well, count me in!

One definite plan for this coming year is to release one bed back to the lawn. As it is now, getting around to all the beds in the evenings after work can be a challenge. I'll still have seven veggie beds to tend, plus berries, herbs, and flowers, so I certainly won't be bored and twiddling my thumbs in an endless expanse of free time. I am hoping, though, that cutting back by one bed will allow me to enjoy the others even more. Of course, I might just get annoyed that I don't have space for everything I want to grow.

I hope that the increasing light in the days to come brings abundance, peace, and joy to all my gardening friends!




Sunday, December 14, 2014

Last Summer's Hard Work Pays Off

This weekend, in all the holiday hoopla of gift-shopping (as little as we could get away with), visiting with friends (made yesterday great!), and cookie-making (all of this afternoon), we didn't manage the weekly run to the grocery store. When I was poking through the cupboards thinking about supper, I almost gathered up my jacket and wallet to make that run.

We are out of fresh fruit, and the drawers in the fridge contain only carrots. The rest of the fridge is pretty empty, too.

However, we have many jars of dehydrated garden-peppers and tomatoes, a big basket heaped with butternut squash, another big basket heaped with sweet potatoes, a smaller basket still half-filled with shallots, and a small freezer filled with tomatoes, berries, sweet corn, okra, zucchini, and more.

Since the cupboards pretty much always contain at least a few kinds of dried beans (some from the store, some from the little farm at which we volunteer) and popcorn from our yard, and the garden contains several kinds of greens and winter radishes (plus parsley, plus cilantro) ready to harvest, and there is homemade applesauce alongside the green salsa in jars in the garage, there is no need to make a panicked run to the store just because we are missing some of our commonly available foods (like eggs and fresh fruit).

In other words, this is a good time to relax and enjoy the results of last summer's hard work. For tonight, we made black bean soup that included some of last summer's garden produce, plus rice and sauteed butternut squash. I know that not everyone is happy with such a vegetarian meal, but it worked for us.

On Wednesday, Joe will have time to shop for additional groceries. Until then, we will use a little kitchen creativity to enjoy the fruits of our labors. I hope that all the other gardeners out there are enjoying the season!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Who Loves Tools?

Bill next to tools with which to pound.
My Mom and Stepdad (Grammy and Grandpa Bill) made it safely to Georgia for Thanksgiving, and one day while they were here, because Bill Loves Tools, we visited a nearby museum that has a great tool room.

The collection is short on gardening tools, but there is plenty of everything else, and it's all artfully enough arranged that even non-tool-lovers can appreciate the displays.

I have some favorite, hard-working garden tools at home, but even if I were no longer using them, there aren't enough to make even one of these display boards!
Mom by the keys, because she is a Kappa Kappa Gamma.

Mom and Bill and tools.
In the last year or so, Bill has had to slow down some in his use of tools, but he did seem to enjoy the tool room at the museum.

He had been in radio communications on an aircraft carrier in WWII, and some of the artifacts in the tool room prompted him to share some episodes from his wartime experience. That was the first I'd heard from him about that part of his life. It made the museum-visit all the more worthwhile.

The two made it safely home after the holiday, and  - while the garden is in a bit of a "waiting" mode right now - the seed catalogs for next year have begun to arrive. Four already are stacked by my chair in the living room.

I would say that it is too early, like Christmas decorations showing up in stores before Halloween, but thinking about the garden is such a good thing that it's hard to complain.