Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Last of the Winter Radishes

In the weeks since the last Lettuce update, the temperature has swung from high sixties to low twenties and back up and down again, and we’ve had some good rain. Somewhere in that time-frame, the lettuces all froze, then thawed to little limp clusters of leaves. This is sad, and if I had been clever I could probably have covered them all up and saved them for another week or two, but we’d already eaten most of what was out there, so it could have been worse.

Even with the rain/freeze combination, I have been able to bring in some radishes in the last few days. These are (probably) the last radishes of the winter, but I could be wrong because a few that were planted in the side yard, in new raised beds, are still in the ground. They just never “radished”—they are still skimpy leaves on skinny roots. The radishes that I brought in were mild and tasty, and people here were a bit sad that there weren’t more of the Muncheiner Beer radishes. Those are really good sliced thin and salted. I will have to plant more of them at the next radish-planting time.

Other survivors of the recent freeze/heat cycle are spinach and chicory, and, of course, the other root vegetables that are still out there. Parsnips, rutabagas, and tiny carrots are still doing well, sweetening in the cold and staying fresh without my having to worry about harvest and storage. When I want them, I just have to go out and pull (or dig) them up.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Plan A

Having a plan, a sense of purpose for a veggie garden, can help a gardener stand firm against the nearly irresistible allure of the seed catalogues. Not that there is anything wrong with ordering seeds for the tomato that is “another genuine Russian treasure!… small to medium oval fruits… very juicy and ripen[ing] to a beautiful, deep garnet red color” (Totally Tomatoes 2009 catalogue, page 26, variety Black Prince). However, when so many varieties sound so great, having a plan can help in saving money and using garden space well.

Part of planning is knowing space limitations. In past years, I have had about 315 square feet of space for growing vegetables. Last year, we—well, my husband did all the hardest work—added about 120 more square feet, but in an area that gets more shade. About thirty-five of the original 315 square feet is given over to asparagus, so I won’t be planting anything more there. What this all means is that, for me to grow everything that I want to grow, I have to modify my “wants” and grow only a little of most veggies.

Another consideration when planning is keeping in mind, or maybe in giant letters on a piece of paper tucked into each seed catalogue, the major goals for the garden. For example, At the Plant-a-Row-for-the-Hungry garden where I volunteer, we grow crops that don’t require refrigerated storage and that are easily recognizable and usable by most local citizens (so they will know what to do with the food we grow). If we grow lettuce, it will just wilt before it can be handed out to the people who need food, because the pantry we deliver our produce to doesn’t have facilities to keep foods like lettuce cool. If we grow less well-known veggies like salsify, there is a big chance that the veggies (and effort put into growing them!) will be wasted as few people will know how to prepare them.

As a result, at that garden we grow a lot of tomatoes, peppers, squash, okra, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, and beans. One year, we grew many heirloom varieties of tomatoes. These turned out to be less productive, generally, than the standard hybrids sold in most garden centers, so we went back to growing more of the hybrids. The major goal for that garden is to provide food for as many people as possible, and experimenting with heirlooms wasn’t going to help us meet that particular goal.

Other gardens will have other goals. Some gardens may be intended to provide gourmet varieties or “baby” vegetables that are normally hard to find and/or expensive. Other garden goals may be to provide organically grown foods or special ethnic foods that aren’t available in stores.

For my garden, major goals are that it will save us grocery money and provide some nutritious additions to our meals. In the peak production times of mid-June through mid-September, we don’t have to buy produce at the store, but we do buy some tropical fruits because we like them. We could get by, though, on what is growing in the yard. In the month or so on each side of those dates, we get enough vegetables to eat them often with meals each week. Before that, beginning in April, the garden starts to provide some cool weather veggies-- not enough to brag about, but we get some asparagus, peas, lettuce, spinach, and other greens, at the least. In Fall, we get additional regular but small amounts of the same cool weather crops.

In no way does our garden produce all of our daily calories for any one month, but I have managed to meet my goals most years.

Crops that help meet the “saving money” goal are tomatoes and peppers. We eat a lot of these, and they don’t seem to come down much in price even during peak production times in the summer. Almost everything else out in the garden helps meet the second major goal. Another, less major goal is to eat something from the yard every week of the year, at least a couple of times each week. With the garden being small, this can be tough, but note that I specified “yard,” so that blueberries, one of my most productive crops, are included. Another crop that helps meet this goal is sweet potatoes; they keep in a basket in the kitchen well into Spring. Seminole “pumpkin” squash is another productive veggie in my yard, and it lasts unspoiled for a full year just about anyplace. I usually also manage to freeze and can/bottle some other produce—some of this as jam— so meeting this goal hasn’t been too hard most years.

If I needed to produce more of my family’s calories (and not just vitamins, minerals, and variety) I would grow more root crops, which tend to be fairly calorie and even protein rich, like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and parsnips. I already grow some of these, but not enough to feed us all year. That would take a dramatically expanded garden and a different plan.

For now, though, I am proceeding with the usual plan, ordering seeds, working out where each crop will go in the garden to meet crop-rotation needs, and hoping for a non-drought year.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Keeping Track

When my oldest boy looked over my shoulder yesterday and realized that I was updating an Excel spreadsheet of seeds that are stored in our fridge, he laughed. The spreadsheet includes variety name, source (Burpee, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, etc.), year the packet was purchased, cost, and notes I’ve made about some varieties. This level of record-keeping may seem pretty extreme, but the spreadsheet helps me know what I have on hand and what I need to order for this year.

For example, I can see that my packet of Cajun Jewel okra was purchased in 2003. The germination rate on those older seeds may be reduced by now, and I should consider buying a new packet even though it still contains plenty of seeds. The packet has lasted five years because I usually grow only seven or eight okra plants each year; those plants (normally) produce all the okra my husband and I will eat.

Keeping spreadsheets for things like seeds, planting and garden chore activities, and whether a particular variety is worth growing again isn’t too horribly painful. My records aren’t spectacular pieces of prose, but they aren’t meant to be; they are just useful. I wish that I had kept better records for more than just the five or so years that I have them (some years’ records are better than others’).

However, Thomas Jefferson, one of my gardening heroes, kept journals, in non-spreadsheet form, about his garden for more than fifty years. He recorded failures, successes, the dates of planting and harvest; he traded seeds and plants with other gardeners. His garden journals are worth perusing, at the least, and sixty-six pages of his garden writing can be read here . Maybe my re-reading them will help this be a year in which my records are relatively complete!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Let Us Eat Lettuces

Lettuce is a cool weather vegetable that sometimes does well here in the Fall; I say “sometimes” because this Fall hasn’t been the best in terms of the abundance of great lettuce. I am not the only one with this complaint---one of my gardening friends also has been annoyed this Fall by the lack of a spectacular lettuce crop in her garden.

Although this is not really generous of me, I am a bit relieved that I am not the only one with a sad looking lettuce patch. Since we both have the same problem, we have decided to blame the weather---the earlier-than-usual temperatures in the 20s.

However, I am also glad that I planted more than one kind of lettuce. The Bibb lettuce and the Tom Thumb lettuce (my absolute favorite variety) look pretty pathetic, but the Oak Leaf lettuce has performed like a champ, recovering quickly after every hard freeze. The big salads that we have had from the garden (not nearly as many as I would prefer) have been primarily Oak Leaf lettuce, with bits of the other lettuces, spinach, chard, chicory, and radicchio mixed in. Oak Leaf lettuce has also been our primary sandwich lettuce.

Tom Thumb is a baby Bibb, so it should not be a huge surprise to me that, when the regular Bibb failed, Tom Thumb did, too. There is a lesson here, and I hope I remember it: that planting more than one variety, and making sure the varieties really are different, can save my salad.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Seed Catalogues!

The seed catalogues have started to arrive. Already, I've received one each from the Totally Tomatoes, Vermont Bean, and Fedco seed companies. This is a bit like Christmas arriving early. Really, if my husband is ever strapped for a gift idea for me, all he would need to do would be to get to the mail before I do in the four weeks before Christmas, hide the seed catalogues, then wrap them up to give on Christmas day. I would have HOURS of entertainment and be totally thrilled. However, I am plenty glad to see the catalogues early, especially this year.

Although I haven't seen confirmation of this trend for the U.S., in the U.K. last year sales of vegetable seeds increased quite a bit over the previous year. According to this article , the increase in sales off racks at stores was 60% above sales for 2007. It seems reasonable that the increase was not isolated to the U.K., and if the economic situation doesn't improve as Spring arrives, demand for veggie seeds could be even higher this year.

With this in mind, I plan to order earlier than usual, to increase the likelihood that the varieties I want will be in stock. Last year, my favorite pea variety was out of stock by the time I ordered (late January), but I had enough left from the previous year's packet to get by. The rutabega that I was hoping to try also was out of stock, so I have a substitute variety out in the yard. Luckily, I have never grown---or eaten!---rutabegas before, so when these are finally ready to eat, I won't have any paragon of rutabega-ness to compare to, so they will probably be fine.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Farm! A Short Documentary

FARM! from Anthony-Masterson on Vimeo.

Shamelessly stolen from Groovy Green, because it features young farmers in Georgia!

In early June one year, when one of the Scout Dads stopped by our house to drop something off, he looked out over the patch of green beans, to the stand of corn, then to all the other plants, and he asked, "Who's the farmer?" Well, it's me of course, but my little yard doesn't really count, and I am getting to be enough of an old lady that expanding the growing area too much would require my getting a lot more help, but the young people in this video really are farmers. It is great to see and hear what they've done and to know that they are being successful. Georgia could use more farmers!

Pots of Potatoes

Last summer, in mid-July, I was given a small handful of fingerling potatoes that had started to sprout, and I planted them in Miracle Grow Potting Soil in two big pots. One of the pots was bigger that the other. I had read, in the past, about growing potatoes in barrels and bags and old bales of straw, and it seemed likely that big pots would also work.

Yesterday, when I finally dumped the pots into the wheelbarrow, I found about one and a quarter pounds of fingerling potatoes, so I couldn't say that the experiment was a resounding success, but I did find that the bigger pot had more potatoes. Also, I found some mushy potatoes that had been nearer the edges of both pots, and I didn't count those as actual "potatoes" in the weight measurement. I think those had probably frozen in the previous week's colder weather, so if I had dumped the pots a couple of weeks earlier, it is likely that the harvested weight would have been more.

I really would like for this method of growing potatoes to work, because potatoes are in the same plant family as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, and rotating plant families around the garden to keep these from being grown in the same place year after year is difficult in a small garden---each spot should go at least three years without one of these plants in it. Growing potatoes in big containers would keep them completely out of the rotation.

I know that potatoes are sensitive to moisture levels (drying out is bad!) and that they are cool-season vegetables (high heat is bad!), and those characteristics may explain why the bigger pot did better than the smaller pot. The bigger pot was probably less prone to swings in both moisture and temperature, staying both more damp and more cool in the deep center than the smaller pot.

So, next year I am going to try again, in Spring and with regular (probably something like Red Pontiac) potatoes, with the largest container I can find and with soil that has been specifically amended for the needs of potatoes, which is going to require some research.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Role of the Kitchen

I started a batch of wine last weekend. When I first started making wine, I used kits, and they turned out pretty well. The wine tasted like something a person might actually buy. But then I bumped into Jack Keller’s website about making wine from just about anything, and my view of wine-making changed. Unfortunately, the only plentiful wine-making base from the yard has been blueberries, and the blueberry wine recipe didn’t seem highly recommended, so for now I am making wine with organic fruit juice from the store. Since this is the season for apples, it’s a good time to start some apple wine, so that is what is bubbling away, in glorious fermentation, in the five gallon carboy in my kitchen right now.

I made apple wine a couple of years ago, too, but just two gallons since it was my first try and I wasn’t sure how it would turn out. I wish I had made five gallons back then, because it is definitely drinkable. The other non-kit wine I made was from Welch’s Grape Juice. I even used some toasted oak chips in the process to fancy it up. There is only one bottle of this left, after three years. When I drank the penultimate bottle, I could still taste the “Welch’s,” and I think I grinned through every glass, so when I bought yeast for the apple wine, I also got yeast and toasted oak chips for another batch of Welch’s Grape Juice wine. Humor is important.

How does this relate to gardening? Well, the connection is round-about, but when we lived in Virginia, a friend grew food in the plot next to ours. It turned out that he really only was interested in the growing; he didn’t like to harvest. That seemed a bit weird to me, but people are all different, so we harvested his garden for him and left the produce in bags on his front porch. He did use the food once it arrived, and that was important. Cooking—food preparation—is, to me, an essential part of gardening.

Plants for the garden are (usually) selected on the basis of what my family likes to eat, but sometimes I choose a new vegetable because someone else has said “It tastes great!” or I have seen a recipe online that uses a new vegetable with a lot of others that I know I like. Nearly always, the homegrown fresh-from-the-garden version is better than the weeks-old-at-the-store version, so it can be worth the effort to grow a small batch of an untried veggie. That way, I get to REALLY know if I like it. This is how I came to love parsnips, which I have been growing for several years now, and this year I have rutabagas maturing out in the yard; I think they will be ready in a few more weeks.

When it is time to eat these vegetables, they will be roasted, because I have had plenty of practice roasting other root vegetables and I know this method works. Having the experience of cooking many kinds of food in many different ways means that I have more options for what food to grow in my yard. It also cuts back on waste.

If this next year turns out to be a good year for plums—end of the drought would help—I will make a batch of plum wine. Practicing now to make non-kit wines should help the next step in my wine-making experience, using whole fruit, to be as successful as possible. In addition, making wine would be one way to preserve part of a bumper crop of plums, if I ever get another such crop!


When I looked out the front door this morning to see the thermometer on the front porch, it was showing a temperature of 25 degrees Fahrenheit. I am glad that we have had big salads from the garden with supper the last couple of evenings. It is possible that some of the remaining lettuces won't survive. They always make it through a lighter freeze, but mid-twenties is a bit too cold for some.

I expect everything else to make it through the cold just fine. My carrots, though, look like they won't be quite ready for eating next week. Bummer.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Tucking the Asparagus in

We really are into Fall now. A predicted light frost early last week led me to bring in a bunch of green tomatoes and ripening peppers, just in case, and in the last few days the leaves have all begun to turn. The maple trees have gone red, the tulip poplars yellow, and the dogwoods a purpley-red. Every day the trees are more beautiful than the day before, but leaves also have begun to fall, so the Great Raking has begun around the neighborhood.

In my garden, the leaves on the blueberry bushes are turning red, and asparagus stalks are turning yellow and brown. This is a clue that it is time to get the asparagus bed ready for winter, so this weekend I cut the plants down to the ground and chopped them up for the compost pile. Over winter, what’s in the compost pile will decompose; what’s left underground will gather strength for Spring.

To help this process of gathering strength along, I used my sharpest hoe to cut down emerging winter weeds in the Asparagus bed---chickweed and purple dead-nettle were coming up already! Then, I spread four bags-worth of composted manure (from a store) over the bed before covering it with chopped-up leaves that were brought over by the teenage boys who live across the street. When they “rake,” they actually use a leaf sucker machine that shreds the leaves as it goes. When the machine’s bag is full, the boys bring it over to dump in my yard. The shredded leaves are great mulch for my garden!

My asparagus is the variety Mary Washington. I know that other kinds grow well here and might even be more productive, but I like that this variety reseeds. Admittedly, keeping sprouting baby asparagus from taking hold between the established plants can be a hassle, but I also appreciate the volunteers that come up in other places. I can dig those up to replant elsewhere and to give away.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Hardiness Zones

Most seed and plant catalogues include a USDA Hardiness Zone Map based on national climate data. The map (published in 1990) puts my yard firmly in zone 7; the finely detailed versions of the map, like this one, show my yard as being on the edge between zones 7a and 7b.

Checking the plant hardiness zone map is important in determining what plants to buy and when to plant them, to avoid potentially costly mistakes. No one will want to lose either the money or the effort that goes into planting and caring for plants that are not suited to a particular yard or that have been planted out too soon!

Interestingly, the map in most of my catalogues is based on older data. In 2003, the American Horticultural Society (AHS) issued a new map (pdf file and really interesting article) based on a more recent set of climate data—from 1986-2002— for the U. S. The newer map shows a big swath of zone 8 right up into north Georgia, with a little patch of zone 7 just NW of metro Atlanta. The map does not include the half zones (a and b divisions).

The Arbor Day Society also created a new hardiness zone map (in 2006), using the same data source (but with more recent years) as the USDA did for the 1990 map. This map looks a lot like the AHS map, and also puts Atlanta in zone 8. However, the Arbor Day Society has provided a great little tool to let people look up their hardiness zone as shown on the new map. The results show that my zip code is in both zones 7 and 8 (apparently, my yard is still “on the edge”) and includes a disclaimer about the effects of microclimate as an influence as to which way my yard actually swings.

Ever since seeing the new map, I’ve been careful that plants I order are successful down to zone 8, just in case. Some plants have a minimum "chill" time, or days of freezing weather requirement, below which they don't set fruit. This requirement might not be met in zone 8 for a "hardy for zones 5-7," for example, plant.

For gardeners who want to be extra-careful in choosing plants for the yard, it is also useful to look at the AHS Heat Zone Map (another pdf file) since some plants can tolerate cold but not excessive days of heat. Anyone who reads garden blogs whose writers live in the Pacific Northwest will understand the difference the heat makes. Many of those gardeners can grow salad right through the summer. Even though our hardiness zones may be identical, here in Georgia the summer heat sends all the cool weather veggies into bitterness and bolting.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Great Traditions

Growing food in the yard is one of the great traditions of our country, for people from all income and socioeconomic levels. I am doing my part to make sure this tradition isn't lost!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Planting Garlic

When I harvested garlic this July from cloves planted last October, the 40 heads looked like a lot of garlic. However, we’ve already eaten 18 of those heads, and I pulled apart four heads to get 40 more cloves to plant today. We have 18 garlic heads left. At this rate, we will run out of homegrown garlic in January! To get a whole year’s worth of garlic from my garden, I would have to plant at least twice as much, 80 or more cloves. Wow. We seem to use quite a bit of garlic in our daily cooking.

We will, however, have to make do with a half-year’s supply, because, even though garlic is easy to plant and takes relatively little space, when Spring comes I will want all the space I can get for other vegetables.

The 40 cloves I planted today went into a space that was just 22 inches by 30 inches, since the cloves need to be only about three inches apart. After loosening the soil and amending it with compost and a little fertilizer, I laid out the cloves on their 3-inch spacing, then pushed each one down into the soil, pointy-end up, so that the pointy tip was about a half inch below the soil surface. Then I tamped the soil down with the back of a hoe, spread a thin layer of mulch over the top to keep the soil from crusting over, and watered the cloves in. If all goes well, in a few weeks, even though the weather will be cold, little green garlic-shoots will appear.

Today, I also planted multiplier onions, but they are still in the experimental stage in my garden. I planted them for the first time last October.

I had ordered a one-pound starter bag, received 5 onions to plant, and had two of those rot before the correct planting date. I planted the three survivors, which produced plenty of small-to-medium sized onions along with several quite large onions in radiating clusters, the way shallots grow. The instructions from the supplier had said to save the biggest onions to plant again in October, to keep the supply going (just like I do with garlic, saving the biggest “seed”—the cloves— from one year to replant for the next). However, the biggest onions did not survive into October so I was going to call this plant a failure for my yard.

Then, in an old Garden Way booklet about growing plants in the onion family, I found a different set of instructions: the booklet recommended replanting the smaller onions, so today I planted twelve little multiplier onions, nine inches apart and pushed under the soil like the garlic. Sometime next summer, I will know whether this strategy, and possibly this kind of onion, will work in my yard. If it doesn’t, there is always the possibility of growing more garlic…

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Garden Song

Although this sounds like a song for Spring planting, getting the soil ready for Spring starts now. As older crops come out, I add more mulch: leaves stolen from the curb and wood chips left from the pile a tree removal service dumped by the driveway in the summer.

Last year, when my office/work hours were earlier, my time in the office overlapped with the janitorial staff, and we talked some about gardening. One woman's pastor was encouraging everyone to start a garden and to plant fruit trees, in preparation for the hard times to come, because "the Lord will save his children, but they have to do their part." Mulching now to protect and build the soil is something to do now, as our "part." As a bonus, my husband will be glad when the last of that chipped wood pile is out of the way of his mowing!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Investing in the Yard

Lots of people are probably reconsidering their investment strategies this week, as the DowJonesIndex has dropped so dramatically. At the close of trading yesterday, the Dow was at 8579.19; exactly one year ago, it had been at 14164.53. This is a drop of more than 39%. Yikes! Needless to say, we have been concerned about our retirement “savings,” which, like so many people’s are 401k-like and include a big dose of the stock market. Those accounts are pretty well stuck due to our employers’ limited offerings, so there isn’t much we can do about them, but we have been thinking about planting more food as an addition to our other plans.

Years and years ago, we planted blueberry bushes, raspberry canes, and three wild plum trees in our yard. This has turned out to be a great investment because these plants have been giving us fruit for years. We aren’t going to retire on our berries and plums, of course, but, like Ben Franklin said, “a penny saved is a penny earned.” As a result of having those (and other) fruiting plants in our yard, for a few months every summer we don’t have to buy fruit at the store in order to have fruit to eat every day. In addition, we have some fruit in the freezer and in jars for the winter. In a house full of boys, this supply of fruit saves a heck of a lot of pennies.

This gardening investment has required my having a “buy and hold” attitude. Like all gardeners, I’ve had to be patient. Most cane fruits, the raspberries and blackberries, require a full year to start providing berries, bush fruits may take two or three years to produce, and trees can take longer. The speedier results from the cane fruits helped me, early on, to stand firm in the commitment to perennial fruit rather than rely only on the regular, annual garden for our yard-food.

In addition, just as in the real stock market (where a portfolio heavy in the financial sector would have been a disaster over the last few weeks) a diversified fruit portfolio is important to good and consistent yields. In 2007, when we had a freakishly late hard freeze, we didn’t get any plums but still had some later-fruiting blueberries(overall yields were down about 50%) and plenty of raspberries. Having more than one kind of fruit can help insure that, even in a bad year, the yard provides some fruit.

Since planting those first fruits, we’ve added more.

About seven years ago:
A Brown Turkey Fig, which gives us some, but not abundant, figs, because it is in too much shade
A Concord Grape vine –a muscadine would have been smarter for the South, but my great grandfather grew Concord grapes in Claremore, Oklahoma, so this was too hard to pass up; this year it gave us a few weeks of grapes pretty steadily, though not superabundantly

Six years ago:
Three Colonnade Apple trees (from Stark Bros.) which, I think, just this year may have broken even in terms of fruit produced versus initial cost

Three years ago:
A Hardy Kiwi, which finally produced a couple of kiwis this year

Two years ago:
Two bush sour cherries that I started from seed –these are growing in pots
Two Jostaberries
One dwarf Juneberry that already died

Last year:
An Asian Persimmon that died in the late freeze
A Key Lime that is in a pot and has to over-winter in the house; it is currently bearing nine little limes

This year:
Four thornless blackberry canes
Another Asian Persimmon, because I am determined to have these
Rhubarb, which is fruity in flavor but not fruit, I know, and a gamble for a zone 7b/8 garden, but I’m a dreamer…

For a few years, long ago, I had Alpine Strawberries growing in the yard. The flavor was great, even though the yield in terms of total weight of fruit per plant was extremely low. Every time someone asks why I don’t grow strawberries, I remember that slugs and snails seem to like strawberries even more than I do. I may try regular strawberries in another year or two, but for now I am still thumbing through the catalogues and talking to my gardening friends to decide whether to add another fruit this year. Fall can be a good season for planting!

Not all of my fruit investments have paid off as well as the blueberries, and some—the dead Juneberry, the first Asian Persimmon, and a cranberry that has spread but not produced fruit, and I can’t remember when I bought it— have been a total bust, but overall, the return on my fruit investment has been good. Some people may be averse to the additional work each year of trimming out old wood and amending the soil, but wading through those annual reports for stocks and mutual funds and then worrying about a crashing economy is, in my view, much more annoying.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Beautiful Beauregard

Several weeks back, I noticed the tops of sweet potatoes erupting from the soil under their vines, but I pulled mulch up over the lava-bright tubers to shield them from the sun and left them to grow a while longer. Sweet potatoes are a crop that benefits from an extra-long growing season (They had been planted on Mothers Day weekend in May). They also dislike cool weather, and in September, we still had plenty of warm days and nights ahead.

We’ve finally had some cool nights, though, and the forecast is calling for rain (!) on Wednesday. Since sweet potatoes should be harvested in dry weather, and yesterday (Monday) was supposed to be a warm day, late in the afternoon I dug up my 3x5 foot patch of sweet potatoes. They had had almost five months of growing time.

It took a while to dig them out, but after hauling them indoors and letting them dry overnight—spread out in a single layer on the dining room table—they weighed 33.5 pounds. I sometimes get more, as much as 45 pounds from the same size area, but I don’t think I can complain. Thirty-three and a half pounds is a lot of food for just 15 square feet of planted space.

More importantly, the sweet potatoes were in a part of the garden that gets a bit less sun than some other parts; in high summer, sunlight didn’t reach the vines until after noon. You’d think I would know better than to plant a full-sun plant in less than full sun, but my yard has very little space that is actually “full-sun,” and in the interest of crop rotation, every year some crops have to make do with less. This year it was Beauregard, the variety of sweet potato that I usually plant.

Some people don’t like Beauregard all that much. At the garden in the arboretum, we usually plant the variety called Vardemon, which is a more yellow shade of orange and has shorter vines, but that some people like better. They both taste good to me, but I prefer Beauregard. It may be that curing does more for Beauregard than it does for Vardemon.

Curing, which is essentially just drying the (unwashed, to protect the delicate skin) potatoes in a warm place for several days, seems to make Beauregard sweeter. Even though this really is not a tidy way to run a household, my Beauregards are, right now, spread out on the dining room table with a small space heater stationed nearby.

For storage, after a few days, I will gather them all into a couple of big baskets, which will stay in the kitchen until we use them up. Sweet potatoes are not like regular potatoes in their storage requirements; they do not do well in cold storage. In fact, if their temperature drops below 55 degrees F for very long, their quality drops—the flavor degrades and the center stays hard even after long cooking. Ideally, they would be kept in a humid, dark, constant temperature (~60 degrees F) environment, but my kitchen floor seems to work well enough. Not only will I get to enjoy my beautiful Beauregards at Thanksgiving, but, if past years can be counted on as any kind of guide, I also will still be enjoying them in February.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Relishing Radishes

I remember reading a Yahoo-groups post once about how easy it is to garden; the writer said that “if you can grow radishes, you can grow anything,” implying that growing radishes was just about the easiest job on the planet. That writer obviously was not gardening in NW Georgia. Some people in my family really like radishes, so those were among the first veggies I tried to grow. That first year of growing food out in the front yard, the tomatoes did great, as did nearly everything else—except the radishes. I tried Cherry Belles, Sparklers, and Champions, thinking that finding the right variety would solve the problem, before giving up on radishes.

Well, about three years ago I started thinking about growing radishes again, after picking up an old cookbook at a local used-book store. The book was part of a TimeLife series on international cooking; the particular volume I bought was published in 1968 and titled The Cooking of Provincial France. One picture in the book is of bunches and bunches of what appear to be French Breakfast radishes,harvested when very small, with a note about their being eaten with butter and salt. Another picture was of a four year old boy, out on a picnic, eating an open-face butter and radish sandwich. It had never occurred to me to eat radishes that way, even though I eat cucumber sandwiches (both with cream cheese and with butter), and I eat cheese sandwiches with mayonnaise and thin slices of carrot for lunch fairly often.

Happily, it is finally easy to grow radishes in my garden. The soil in which I originally gardened had been just about as friable as brick paving--it's a miracle that anything grew--but after years of adding organic matter and years of mulching, the soil has become more radish-friendly. So, now I grow French Breakfast radishes and harvest them small. They grow pretty well for a few weeks in the fall and a few weeks in the spring; otherwise, it is either too hot or too cold. My first fall planting of radishes for this year, from seed sown in late August, is ready to eat, and I have three additional plantings coming up, enough to keep us supplied with small, pungent radishes for a few weeks. This morning, for a midmorning snack, I ate a butter and radish sandwich. It was delicious.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


The peppers have decided to put out a last blast, for which we are grateful. The boys in my family consider peppers to be a "food of the gods." The pepper pictured above is a poblano, but the Anaheims, Jimmy Nardellos, and California Wonders are all doing as well--they are covered with little peppers. However, the okra and eggplant are just about done. As the cooler weather stops production of the summer vegetables, the fall veggies kick in. We will be eating Tom Thumb lettuce in just two or three weeks!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Old and in the Way

Sometimes a gardener has to be ruthless. Late summer is one of those times. The reason is that, in a small garden anyway, summer crops are still taking up all the space in the garden, and may be producing. However, by now, some of that production has slowed way down, and the best way to get more food from the garden is to rip those old plants out, bury them in the compost heap, and plant some Fall crops in their place.

Over the last few weeks, that is exactly what I’ve been doing—pulling out the Roma and the Burpee Tenderpod bush beans, the Greek and North Carolina Pickling cucumbers, the zucchetta, last year’s chard that is finally starting to bolt, and all three kinds of melons. In their place, I’ve planted some Fall veggies:

lettuce—Tom Thumb, Oak Leaf, and Bibb
spinach—Bloomsdale Longstanding and Space Hybrid
collards—Georgia (I don’t like these, but my husband does)
chard—Perpetual Spinach
carrots—Little Finger and Jaune du Doubs
chicory—Della Catalogna
beets—Early Wonder Tall Top
broccoli—nine little plants from the Home Depot
pak choi—unnamed variety from Bountiful Gardens
radishes—French Breakfast and Muncheiner Bier

I will continue to make little plantings of French Breakfast radishes for a while, and in October I’ll plant the garlic and the potato-onions. That should just about finish my Fall vegetable planting.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Why Beets?

A guy I was explaining my garden to a couple of weeks ago asked, after hearing all the different vegetables growing out there, “Why beets?” That is a good question, especially considering that I have had to put some effort into learning to like them. It turns out that beets are growing in my garden for more than one reason.

In order to avoid the buildup of disease problems, it is recommended that plants in the same family not be planted in the same spot for a few years. Since so many of my favorite foods are in just a few families (for example, the tomato family includes peppers, potatoes, and eggplants), I needed to increase the variety of my planting. The effort to rotate crops is complicated by the size of my garden: it’s small. So, when I first considered growing beets, it was because the garden needed more plants that weren’t related to the tomato, broccoli, and cucumber families to add to the rotation. Beets are related to chard, which I wasn’t growing at that time, and spinach, which I was.

What tipped me over the edge, into actually growing beets, was a work-related trip. A person in my group made a reservation for us at a Very Nice Restaurant, and I ordered the vegetable plate. The description of the meal included “greens,” which made me a little wary (I have tried to like collard greens for a long time, with no luck), but the greens were a wonderful surprise. They were tasty (no collards!) and included beet leaves.

The very next spring, I planted beets—Detroit Dark Red—in the garden. I went looking for recipes on the internet, found some to try, and I've been enjoying beet leaves ever since. The roots, I’m still working on, but last time I ate them (May of this year!), they weren’t too bad. Maybe this fall’s beets will be delicious!

Monday, August 25, 2008


I’ve been growing melons for just four years, and I have yet to find the perfect melon for my yard, but I’m not giving up any time soon. My perfect melon will have a definite melon flavor, will be sweet, will slip off the vine when ripe so even on my least observant days I can figure out when a melon is ready to be eaten, will be an open pollinated (non-hybrid) variety so I can save the seeds for future years, and will produce a decent amount of fruit. So far, I’ve tried Hale’s Best Jumbo, Sugar Nut Hybrid, Minnesota Midget, and Eden’s Gem. At the arboretum where I am a garden-volunteer, the vegetable garden includes Athena, which seems to be pretty similar to Hale’s Best Jumbo.

What I’ve learned so far:

Hale’s Best Jumbo—This is the first melon I grew. I got a couple of big orange-fleshed melons from each vine but they weren’t especially sweet, and they tended to crack before slipping off the vine (my ripeness indicator). I thought that the big rains we’d had around ripening time might have been responsible for the splitting and watery flavor, so I tried again the next year. Same result. At the arboretum, the Hale's Best Jumbo also have tended to split before slipping off the vine and to have less-than-spectacular flavor, but since we turned off the sprinkler system this year when it looked like the melons were getting close to ripe, the melons all (including the Athena) have had good flavor and sweetness, even though they were cracked open and had parts (around the cracks) that did not look good to eat. It seems like this melon (and Athena) need to be kept unwatered and unrained-on at ripening time for best flavor. Since I can’t control the tropical storms that come up across the Florida panhandle to dump rain on metro-Atlanta in the middle of the melon harvest, this seems like a less than ideal choice of melon for my yard.

Minnesota Midget and Eden’s Gem—These both are tiny melons, just a pound or two (max!) each. But since they are supposed to be great for small gardens, and my garden in small, it seemed like they were worth a try. Eden’s Gem is green-fleshed and Minnesota Midget is orange-fleshed. They are both tasty and sweet, they slip off the vine when fully ripe, and none of the fruits have split or cracked. Since the melons are so small, even though each vine produced two to four melons, the total weight of fruit harvested was not as much as I would prefer. However, one of my friends is growing these in containers on her sunny driveway this year, and she has really enjoyed these little fruits.

Sugar Nut Hybrid— This is the third year that I’ve included this melon in my melon patch, and I originally bought the seeds to grow as a back-up melon the second year I planted Hale’s Best Jumbo. The Sugar Nut is green inside like a honeydew and bright yellow outside when it is ripe, and it slips from the vine to let the gardener know it’s time to harvest. If water is withheld at ripening time, this melon is almost too sweet, but my family does not consider that characteristic to be a flaw. A sudden late downpour of rain does not make the sweetness go away, and none of these, in three years, has split or cracked. Each vine usually produces two to three medium sized melons, but the presence of the mini-melons in the garden this year had an interesting, and undesirable, effect on the Sugar Nut Hybrids that were planted at the same time: they stayed little. It hadn’t occurred to me that allowing the fruits to cross-pollinate would affect this year’s fruit, even though I know it would affect any plant babies produced from seeds of this year’s fruit. Luckily, I had planted two of these a few weeks earlier than the others, and those two plants produced normal-sized melons.

The take-home message:

I’m still-hunting for my perfect melon. I will probably plant Sugar Nut Hybrid again next year, alongside a new-to-me open-pollinated variety that won’t be a midget.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Oh, fig!

At the arboretum where I am a garden-volunteer, the fig tree by the tractor shed is loaded down with ripening fruit. We volunteers have been doing our best to reduce that load by snacking on figs every time we go by, but we haven’t been able to keep up. And yesterday, passing the fig tree was a real adventure, because now it is swarming with yellow jackets and big orange wasps.

As we all stood back from the buzzing tree and talked about figs and fig recipes, it came out that for the past couple of weeks everybody else’s fig trees have been going wild, ripening pounds and pounds of figs. One gardener invited everyone who wanted more figs over to her place because she has five fig trees all weighed down with fruit. Unfortunately, her trees pose the same problem as the one at the arboretum: picking the figs means braving a lot of stinging insects.

I started thinking about the brown turkey fig tree in my back yard near the deck. The tree is in partial shade, so we don’t get tons of figs and they ripen later than everybody else’s . This may be why I’ve never had too much trouble with yellow jackets around the back porch, in spite of the relatively unwise placement of the fig tree. As we all put away buckets and tools and continued talking, I realized how lucky I was in mistakenly placing my tree in the shade. Another gardener mentioned that she knew a family that, a few years ago, had planted a fig tree by their (sunny) back door. Her comment was followed by a moment of somber silence, except, of course, for the buzzing of wasps and yellow jackets.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Matt's Wild Cherry (Tomato)

Reading tomato descriptions in the seed catalogues in winter, when fresh tomatoes have been gone from the house for two or three months, is almost torture. They all sound so wonderful, and I want to try them all, but in my yard, most tomato varieties that aren't at least VFN resistant either die right away or have pretty low yields of tomatoes. To save myself from the distress of a pathetic tomato harvest, I choose my main crop tomatoes from varieties that are listed as being the most disease resistant, then I add one or two others to try, just in case the plants turn out to be resistant, after all (hope springs eternal!).

Matt's Wild Cherry is the kind of cherry tomato that I chose to grow this year, mostly because the catalogue description made it sound very resistant to all kinds of diseases and also because I had never heard of it before (the lure of the unknown!). Since this was an experiment, I started, and eventually planted, only one plant from the seed packet.

This is one tomato that is a success in my yard. It has been reasonably productive, providing a couple of cups of grape-sized tomatoes every day since the weather turned hot, and it is tasty. It isn't a super-sweet tomato, just nicely tomato-y. One of my brothers said it was like "a cool drink of water."

It isn't a good choice for a very small garden, though, or for a container. My one plant has arms that sprawl at least twelve feet, reaching through the all the cages of my Mortgage Lifters and Arkansas Travelers in one direction and all the way through my melon patch in the other.

After this year's success, I'm going to plant a Matt's Wild Cherry again, next year. Plenty of seeds are left in the packet, safely stored in a jar in the fridge.

Thanksgiving in August!

That title only makes sense because the local fabric and craft shops, that all have my address and aren’t afraid to use it, send me fliers in June and July advertising “Christmas in July” workshops and sales. The theory behind the July push seems to be that it takes a while to plan and complete craft projects, so getting an early start on Christmas gift-making is essential. A similar idea works for my garden. If I want to be able to go out and pick fresh veggies from my yard at Thanksgiving, I need to plan and begin the work in August.

Lots of plants do better in the cool weather of fall than in the blazing heat of a Georgia summer. Some of these, that I actually grow, are chard, spinach, lettuce, carrots, beets, peas, and broccoli. In addition, this year, as an experiment, I bought some rutabega seeds to try. My parsnips are already up; they have to be planted extra early since they need a very long growing time, so I planted those at the end of June.

I started my planning last week by looking at my seed supply and realizing that I needed more carrot seed, so I bought a packet of “Little Finger” carrots from Burpee. I’ve grown them before, and they were delicious. The back of the packet claims that I can harvest the little carrots just 65 days after planting. I would want the carrots to reach maturity (full sweetness and flavor) before the first freeze of the season, so the latest I should plant them is 65 days before the first frost date.

In the past, I have calculated my planting dates using Halloween as the first-frost date, but this article indicates that the Atlanta area gets its first frost fairly late in November, around the 20th.

Counting backwards from 20 November, I should plan to have those carrot seeds in the ground by 16 Sept at the latest. Since I want several weeks of carrots, and because the best-laid plans often go awry, I will probably plant little patches of them weekly before then, starting the last week in August. That should help ensure that my Thanksgiving relish tray includes my own garden’s carrots.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Where are the birds?

Blueberries grow really well here. I have three Rabbiteye-type blueberry bushes in the sunny front garden, and one each in the shady back and side yards. Most years, the bushes produce enough ripe berries that for three or so weeks in late June and early July I bring in two or three quarts of berries every day. That is enough to leave some in a bowl on the kitchen counter for snacking, some to freeze/can/dehydrate/make desserts with, and some to give away. Then, the birds find the bushes and they strip off all the berries.

The arrival of the birds always makes me a little sad, because three weeks isn't quite enough, and I end up wishing that the birds would give me a few more days. Well, you know how they say, "watch out what you wish for?" This year, I got my wish. Every day for six weeks now the berries have been ripening untroubled by birds, with the exception of one family of three cardinals. Now, my freezer is bursting with quart bags full of blueberries. I've given away quarts, and quarts, and quarts, and I still need to go out and pick today. I shouldn't complain, I know, because blueberries are good food, and plenty of people in the world are hungry and would love to have this problem. I would like, though, to know what happened to the hungry birds.
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