Saturday, December 31, 2011

Year's Ending, and Beginning

Here at the end of the year, and the end of a warm December, the garden still has plenty to offer. I've brought in this cauliflower to go with the dip for tonight's celebration. We usually go in for more healthful meals, but we are making that Velveeta Cheese and Rotel Tomato dip to go with a lot of fresh veggies (I have carrots and broccoli, too). Of course, I also bought a bag of chips...

Overall, this year's garden seems to have been successful. We certainly still have plenty of dehydrated tomatoes, even though we've been using them every week, ten or so jars of jam, half a basket of sweet potatoes, squash and green beans in the freezer, and more.

However, some of the squash and a lot of the green beans are actually from a local farm where we go to help out on the weekends. This is the first year of our working there, but we have been getting "paid" in produce. Tonight's carrots, for example, are from my friend's farm. That extra produce has made it harder to judge the relative success of my own garden.

To help keep better track of how much food I am able to bring to the kitchen from the yard, I really am going to weigh most of it (at least, I hope I remember to weigh most of it). Tonight's cauliflower, which won't actually count since this is still 2011, weighs 510 kg, which is 1.12 pounds. Seeing it on the scale made my gardener's heart happy. I will be happier still to see it being eaten!

The scale is going to stay on the kitchen counter as a reminder. Right now, out in the yard, there is a little more broccoli (side shoots), another big cauliflower and one little one, some winter radishes, a few carrots, an assortment of greens, several parsnips, several beets, a few lettuces, and herbs. The onions and garlic that will be harvested in 2012 are already out there, too, but most of what gets harvested in the coming year will be planted in that year.

The scale isn't sensitive enough for lighter harvests, so when we bring in little bits of food, like a few lettuce leaves for sandwiches or a sprig of rosemary for the roasted root veggies (for example), those won't be weighed to add to the year's total, but I think that's not going to make a big difference in what my Mom would call "the grand scheme of things."

I know that a lot of gardeners already have been tracking their total harvests for several years, and I have always admired their persistence in getting the task done. Let's hope I can manage it!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Nonconforming Freely

A casual perusal of my blog will show pretty clearly that my garden is right out in the front yard. The backyard is dark with trees, so I didn't have many options for garden location when I set out to grow my own veggies. There are a lot of neighborhoods, though, where this choice would be a major problem.

One of my friends gave me a great little book over the holidays that, on one page in particular, illuminates the reason behind so many neighborhoods' lawn-care rules. The book is "Weeds," by Richard Mabey, and this is the relevant passage about lawns in the United States:

The pressure to conform to orthodox standards of lawn perfection are huge. There are no hedges to hide behind. Your tolerance of a tuft of plantain is not just a sign of your own slovenliness, but a public insult to your neighbors. Your lawn is a visible extension of the whole community's proudly maintained estate. If you default on its maintenance, you have opted out of the social contract. (page 175)

A big, nonconforming square of corn out in the front yard is probably a much larger blight on a "proudly maintained estate" than a few tufts of narrow-leaf plantain! Luckily for me, the social contract in my neighborhood isn't a formal document that lays out rules concerning appearance beyond keeping that lawn below ten inches high and not using the lawn as a parking lot.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Early winter in my Southern garden

With all the summer crops gone and the fall crops just scattered here and there, things are looking pretty bare in the garden, but there are a few spots of color. The tall chrysanthemums, that have flopped over onto the sage and oregano, are still in bloom. It will take temperatures lower than 29 F to stop those flowers!

The broccoli is doing what it's supposed to: keeping on making little side shoots after the main head of florets has been harvested.

The garlic has settled in nicely, sending up the shoots that will remain all winter, continuing to grow on days when the weather warms. Way in the background of the photo is the first patch of onions, planted from little dry bulbs. In another part of the garden I planted some slender green "sets" that a friend gave me. He had ordered 2,000 from a place in south Georgia, and we had a few left over after planting two big beds out at his place.

We've been using the cilantro on "taco night," so there isn't as much here as if I had just left it alone, but we grow it to use it. If last year's success repeats, by spring this patch will be amazingly tall and lush.

The Camellia japonica has been in bloom since about Thanksgiving. When the temperatures drop to more wintry levels, the flowers will turn all brown and mushy, but here in the early winter, we get to enjoy the pink. I have one of these flowers in a little vase in the kitchen window, to enjoy while I work. I like this plant even though it isn't edible. (If I grew the tea Camellia, I could use the leaves in the kitchen, but my Camellia japonica came with the house. It's more than 25 years old.)

Things have slowed way down in the garden, but there is still plenty going on. We've been eating the winter radishes, using the lettuces and spinach for salads, stir-frying the bok choy, adding the collards and kale to soups and watching the chicory as it begins to form heads. A gardener's life is never dull, and when all goes as planned, there are healthful veggies to add to meals every day. As the name of a particular seasonal movie proclaims - It's a wonderful life!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Gardening for the harried

In the summertime, the traditional Southern garden staples - tomatoes, peppers, squash, green beans, cucumbers, and okra - all need to be picked and processed (either eaten, frozen, canned, fermented, dehydrated, or given away) on a schedule that is all their own (constantly!); the plants need to be kept watered, which in a drought can be a huge chore, and the plants need to be checked for pests and diseases fairly frequently. Sometimes, those pests and diseases require some kind of immediate action on the part of a gardener.

If that gardener has about a million other responsibilities at the same time, he or she can go nuts trying to keep up.

As a gardener with a job, family, friends, and volunteer work (and the blog!) all needing to be fitted into my daily life, I can understand when some people just give up on the garden, which can be seen as that “last straw” for a person who already is struggling to get everything done.

I am lucky in having family and friends who are happy to help when my schedule gets overwhelming, but not every gardener has that backup. For even the most harried of gardeners, though, there are food-plants that can be grown with a bare minimum of work on the part of the gardener.

For the truly stressed-out gardener living here in the South, I would choose the sweet potato as the easiest-to-grow garden crop. In my area, there is a big window of opportunity for planting, stretching from around May 10 to June 10 or even later. For a gardener who has trouble finding time to plant, this is a great gift. It is likely that somewhere in that four or five weeks, a planting day can be found.

Sweet potatoes will be plenty productive with just one side dressing of fertilizer that can be applied anytime within four to seven weeks after planting. The big window of time, again, is great for busy gardeners who can’t always manage to get the gardening done in a tighter time frame.

The plants don’t have to be watered two or three times each week; one really good drenching once every ten days to two weeks is enough for astonishingly good production.

The crop is relatively disease and pest free, and after the vines have spread across the garden, very few weeds survive the dense shade created by the leaves. Not having to weed is another great gift to the busy gardener.

The harvest window for sweet potatoes is as big as the planting window. As long as the plants have been in the ground for around 110 days, they just need to be dug up before the first frost. If I get my sweet potato slips into the ground in late May, I can dig them up anytime from the last week in September to the last week in October. If one week is too busy, I can wait for the next one.

I keep my harvested sweet potatoes in a wicker laundry basket in the kitchen. There is no canning, dehydrating, fermenting, or freezing necessary to preserve the harvest. The spuds are handy to use whenever I want them, and they keep for months without any extra effort on my part.

The harried gardener who has planted sweet potatoes will have plenty to smile about all winter long: a harvest of healthful food from his or her own garden, and it required hardly any work at all!

Other root crops are also easy-on-the-gardener, but not quite as easy as sweet potatoes. Potatoes, onions, and garlic all are time-savers in terms of their being harvested all at once and not requiring elaborate processing in order to “keep” for several months, but those crops need a little more tending.

“White” potatoes need more watering than sweet potatoes, and they will also need to be hilled-up and given a fertilizer boost at least once in their growing season. When white potatoes are harvested, they just go into a basket over which I will drape some towels to exclude the light. However, they are more prone to pests and diseases, which means they need to be checked fairly frequently while they are growing. If the gardener has to leave town for a week or two, this crop will need a minder, unlike sweet potatoes that will be fine on their own.

I have onions and garlic growing now, and there will be some weeding to do (some chickweed has started coming up between the plants), and they will need a fertilizer boost at some point, but otherwise the most they will need in terms of my attention is for me to remember to go out and harvest them in spring (onions) and early summer (garlic).

The harvest window is a little tighter than for potatoes, but onions and garlic left in the ground a week or two after the tops have fallen over and begun to dry will be fine, as long as the ground isn’t wet.

The onions I don’t eat right away will keep for quite a while if I’ve remembered to leave them spread out in the shade to dry for a couple of days before bringing them inside. Garlic is easier to peel if it’s been left to dry for several weeks, but that isn’t much of a drawback.

For gardeners who are not quite so harried, cool weather crops are a good choice (leaving summer to the sweet potatoes). In fall and spring, less time needs to be spent watering since there is usually more rain. Right now, for example, my yard is squishy with rain.

Cooler weather means that crops are growing more slowly, but weeds are growing more slowly, too, reducing time that needs to be spent weeding.

Even more helpful - a lot of cooler weather crops can be left in the ground and harvested when needed. The parsnips, carrots, beets, and winter radishes that I have growing now are good examples, and so are leafy greens like collards and kale. Most of the winter, I can go out and harvest what I need, when I need it.

There is some weeding to do, and the plants will need a fertilizer boost or two, but there isn’t as much “tending” as in the hot summer months, and the plants won’t go to seed until warmer weather returns in the early spring. That leaves a pretty big harvesting window, and if the plants are left for a week or two or three without any attention at all, they’ll probably be fine.

Broccoli plants will begin to flower if left unattended too long, and so will cabbages and cauliflower, so those cool weather crops probably are not great choices for gardeners whose other commitments make finding time for gardening more difficult.

Gardening does take some time, and for the most busy among us that can be a big problem, but for me it is worth the effort on a lot of levels. I like having produced some food for my family that I know is healthful; it helps that the food is cheap to grow; when I work in the yard, I’m getting exercise that I know I need; being outside is good for my vitamin D levels, and I like that the time spent outside has also been productive; sometimes, when I am having trouble thinking of what to make for supper, the garden supplies the inspiration – and ingredients – that I need; and my family eats a lot more vegetables than if we didn’t have the garden, because there is no way I’m going to waste the effort of having grown the food by letting it rot away unused. There are more reasons, but that’s probably enough for now.

In addition to enjoying the relatively easier-to-come-by fruits of the fall gardening season, this is a good time to do a little planning for the 2012 garden. The seed catalogs are starting to arrive and the yard-work is at a minimum (assuming the fallen leaves have already been moved to the compost). Thinking now about how much time will be available to work in the garden could help prevent some major stress and loss of crops in next year's garden.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

More Garden-talk with Grandpa Bill

Grandpa Bill kept the peppers coming through central Oklahoma's blistering-hot summer by erecting a little shade directly over each plant.

He had put a "cage" around each plant, just like he does each year, for support of the heavy branches. As the temperatures climbed and then stayed high, he put an upside-down saucer, the kind that go underneath potted plants, on top of each cage. Since his pepper plants continued to produce, the strategy seems to have been a good one. (If anyone is curious, he mostly grew Big Bertha bell peppers.)

As the weather gets weirder and weirder, it's good to have ideas already in mind, and I thought that one was worth sharing.

He also said that this was the first year he's grown cantaloupes in a long time. The weather should have been great for melons - all that heat and drought should have made them extra-sweet. He said, though, that the melons didn't taste like anything at all. We've had that problem before with melons at the Plant-a-Row-for-the-Hungry garden, and I am beginning to see that bland melons are a more widespread problem than just here in the Southeast. Luckily, we found Schoon's Hardshell, which has worked out well for us.

As the seed catalogues began to arrive, he also pointed out that, back in the old days, you just went to the store and bought whatever seeds were there, and they always worked out just fine. Now that there are so many varieties to choose from, gardeners are more likely to end up with at least some seeds that aren't ideally suited to their yards.

As the catalogues pour in - mostly from the Northeastern U.S. and the Northwestern U.S. - it's easy to see how lack-of-garden-success could become a problem for new gardeners. For instance, I am guessing that the "bland melon" problem and prevalence of far-away seed sources that contain many tantalizingly-described varieties are somehow related.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving conversations

My Mom and Step-dad (aka Grammy & Grandpa Bill) are visiting from Oklahoma for the holiday. We've had some gardening conversations along with all the great food, and it turns out that gardening in Oklahoma was pretty tough last summer.

Their area had 60+ days over 100 degrees F, which meant that they didn't ever get a tomato crop. They did get some tomatoes early on, from flowers that were pollinated before the high temperatures set in, but that was it. The peppers did OK, but tomatoes usually are abundant in the summer garden, and they were missed.

They also said that Christmas trees are a big crop in Oklahoma (and in Texas). Between the drought and the heat, a lot of those just are not going to make it to market this year.

Bill says that the fall is too short and the temperatures too extreme for a good fall garden where they are, but Mom started looking at my old seed catalogues for some of the varieties that I've had good luck with in the early spring. She plans to buy some Capitan lettuce seeds (variety that has been on our turkey sandwiches) and seeds for other leafy greens for the early spring.

Amazingly, the first seed catalogues for 2012 arrived today: Vermont Bean and Totally Tomatoes. I guess the next gardening year really is right around the corner!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Autumn Productivity

Over the long summer and early fall, the kitchens of gardeners all across the Southeast are covered up in tomatoes, peppers, okra, and all kinds of beans. Those plants just keep on producing small mountains of food, week after week. There really isn't an equivalent crop, in terms of productivity, for the cooler seasons.

Part of that is just the nature of plants in cool weather; growth slows way down. But part of that is due to what we harvest. Mostly, in the cooler weather crops, we aren't after the fruits. We are after the leaves, the roots, the entire flowering stem.

The closest crops in terms of constant productivity that I can think of, really, are some of the greens. Collards, mustards, and kale, for example, keep on coming, but it takes a lot of greens to fill a pot for supper. From my garden, I can harvest enough greens each week for maybe one meal, right now, but as the temperature drops even more and the growth rate slows, the harvests will slow, too.

Most of us prefer to plant more cool-weather crops than just greens, though. For example, I planted six broccoli plants. If all goes as planned, I will harvest six big heads of broccoli and then some smaller side-shoots, but that will make, at best, enough of the vegetable for eight or nine meals.

The same goes for cauliflower, except that I don't expect any bonus side shoots after harvesting the heads. To be honest, I've never even grown cauliflower before, so I am pleased way-out-of-proportion to what I'm going to get from the six-pack of plants that I bought and planted back in August.

For radishes, one seed makes one small root. Of course, these are delicious, and you can cram quite a lot of them into a fairly small space. The red ones pictured here are "regular" radishes, with a listed 35-days-to-maturity. The white one is a Muncheiner Beer radish, a winter-radish type with a much longer time-to-maturity. The winter radishes can stay in the ground through some very cold weather, so I don't have to worry about bringing them inside as the winter progresses.

Unprotected lettuces keep making new leaves until the first very hard freeze. Around here, that might be as late as mid-December. By mid-January, though, most lettuces left uncovered will have dissolved into a mushy puddle in the garden. This is one of the big, loose heads of Capitan lettuce that I have growing right now:

I have a little cold-frame to fit over the place where the lettuces are planted, but some of these are planted a little too close to the edge of the bed. As colder weather moves in, I'll cut those to the ground to make enough room to fit the cold frame over the lettuces that are more in the middle of the bed.

The garlic that was planted a couple of weeks ago, to grow through the winter and spring, has come up. I love having a crop that overlaps the seasons - when February comes and most of the fall veggies are gone, that promise of good food to come is heartening.

Friday, November 11, 2011


On Wednesday, at the new garden site for the Plant-a-row-for-the-hungry garden, there was a charrette for the whole property. Essentially, a charrette is a big-group brainstorming session for design, and we were putting together potential designs for the whole property at Fountain Gate, which will be the host for our garden plus a community garden plus demonstration garden for Kennesaw State University.

The landscape designer, Sean Murphy, did a great job of walking us all through "what to do," and people from the city of Kennesaw showed up to tell us about the future road-widening that will affect the plans.

The whole group was divided into three smaller groups for the brainstorming. We all had big maps of the property, tracing paper to lay over the maps to write on, and a few colors of Sharpies for drawing. In the end, it was great to see the variety of plans that the three groups came up with. We were all trying to place the KSU garden, the PAR garden, the community garden plots, a meditation/contemplation area, picnic/play areas, paths and access routes and other features on the ~3 acre site.

One group did an especially nice job of keeping artistry in mind. My group was thinking much more in terms of function.

The good news is that Sean Murphy is very good at what he does, and however he sets up the site will be fine. (He is in a design competition right now for an urban farm in Atlanta, and there is a good chance he will win. He brought a copy of the plan to our meeting, and what I saw was pretty impressive.)

I did meet a retired friend over at the property this morning for some advice. This guy is a long-time farmer and retired developer-of-subdivisions, and he had some useful comments with regard to drainage on the site. He pointed out where the water was going to run across the property and where the slope was going to be too steep for an in-ground garden. First, he recommended that the drainage corridor be left as lawn.

Then he pointed out that if the PAR space ends up on ground that is too sloped, we will need to put in raised beds. I would probably have figured that out eventually, but it's helpful to be prepared.

He also said that the best garden site was right behind the Grambling House (historic house on the property). None of the designs put the PAR garden there, and I'm a little chagrined that I didn't see it as a possibility.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

New Garden Site!

The Plant-a-row-for-the-hungry (PAR) project for which I am a volunteer seems to have found a new home. The Fountain Gate counseling center in Kennesaw is planning a big community garden on its property on Cherokee Street, and there is enough room for us, too.

The official website for the new garden is still pretty spare, but it gets the idea across. A garden is going in!

Anyone who wants to be able to voice an opinion about the layout and other aspects of the plan can sign up for the newsletter online (through the website, linked above) or send an email to the listed address and get signed up for the design meetings. The first design "charrette" (discussion/planning) meeting is scheduled for next week, on Wed., Nov. 9, at 2 p.m. at the "brown house" - which is actually beige - that is also on the property.

My understanding is that people who show up for the meeting - and everyone who is interested in the garden at any level is invited - will separate into small groups to talk about what would be great in terms of garden design. The property is three or more acres, so this is large-scale design - where garden beds should be located, how big they might be, where paths and sheds might go, where greenspace and benches might be nice, where our PAR garden might be situated, and more.

I expect to be there.

Me and My Bok Choy

One of the bok choy plants finally did make it into the kitchen.

I don't know what it is about bok choy, but I always cut the whole plant to bring in, whereas for most other greens I tend to just bring in the leaves that I will need for the meal I have in mind. It could be the thickness/succulence of the petioles that causes me to reach right past them, to the base of the plant.

There are still three bok choy plants out in the yard, and I may experiment with one of them, cutting off just the leaves I need, to see how that goes. Does anyone else harvest bok choy one leaf at a time?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Definitely the End of Summer

For the next several days, the weather forecast is for lows in the 30s. Any warm-season crops left in the garden are going to be looking pretty miserable by the end of the week, unless they've been protected. In my garden, there are a few more tomato plants and peppers still in place, but those will be heading toward the compost heap sometime tomorrow.

I hope, especially, that everyone's sweet potatoes are inside. This year, I was lucky enough to be able to harvest sweet potatoes in three different gardens: my own, the Plant-a-row-for-the-hungry garden, and at Mr. Kastner's garden. Out at Mr. Kastner's place, there was a lot of help, which was a good thing because he had a whole lot of potatoes to dig up. The big harvest day was a couple of weeks ago, so these pictures are a little late going up. In this first picture, Mr. Kastner is the guy in the pink shirt, and his partner-in-gardening, Mr. Hankerson, is on the right in blue:

The potatoes were not all that easy to get out of the ground, and there was some discussion about the best way to pry them out without damaging them. The good news is that these were all grown on long, wide hills, so the digging wasn't so much "down" as it was "from the side."

These big clusters of sweets were pretty typical of what came out of the ground at each place where a slip had been planted back in early summer:

In all, there were three double-wide rows, each about 150 feet feet long, that had been planted. In each row, the slips had been planted about 9 or 10 inches apart. Mr. Kastner figured that he had planted close to 900 slips. Removing the vines and then digging up the sweet potatoes from that many plants was a big job!

Mr. Hankerson and Mr. Kastner had built some storage bins out of old wood pallets for storing the sweet potatoes while they cured in a metal "shed" (it looks like an old version of what 18-wheelers pull around out on the highways). When the bins were all placed inside the shed, a little heater and a fan went in there, too, along with a temperature & humidity gauge to help make sure the sweet potatoes stayed appropriately warm and the air moist.

They are going to be able to feed a lot of people with this many sweet potatoes.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Lot Like Fall

We've had low temperatures in the upper 30s, and days in which the highs are in the 60s. Indoors, we've had a fire in the woodstove a couple of nights. It is definitely feeling a lot like fall.

Outside, even though the remaining summer crops are looking pretty ragged, the cool-weather crops are starting to shine. The broccoli is beginning to head up:

This bed of greens (and weeds) has already given us a couple of salads, some greens for cooking, and radishes. When the rest of the radishes come out, it will be easier to see the greens - the little bulbs are planted between the rows of greens, and their leaves are sticking up all over.

Right near where I stood to take that picture is a little patch of cilantro that didn't make it into the field-of-view. At the far end of the bed is a short row of bok choy. This does really well for us every year:

Isn't that beautiful? I think a stir-fry-supper is in my near-future.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Wrong season, but a cool trick

My Louisiana sister sent another useful video. This is at least as cool as peeling a whole head of garlic in less than ten seconds (in a previous post), and it doesn't require matching large bowls.

Let's hope I remember this when the fresh corn comes back around in June!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Field Trip to Farmer D Organics!

Even though I live within an hour of Farmer D Organics, I had never been there until this week. I had an extra-long day at work on Monday (15 hours!), so on Tuesday I left work early. I was a little cranky from sleep-deprivation, but I figured that the thing that would improve my mood the most was a garden-oriented field-trip. Of course, a nap would probably have been a more logical choice.

My excuse for the field-trip was that I wanted to check out the garlic, since it is just about time to put that in the ground. It didn't hurt that the Farmer D store is only about 20-25 minutes from the office.

The good news is that there was plenty of garlic to choose from, and the cloves were HUGE. I bought two heads of California Early softneck and three cloves (loose) of Elephant garlic to try.

I have bought different varieties of garlic through the mail before, and they've done well, but the heads were not even close to the size of the garlic at Farmer D's, and this is one of those situations in which size matters. Big cloves usually end up making big heads of garlic in the garden.

The garlic that I've had the best luck with so far, in terms of consistently producing big heads of garlic in the garden, is the Rabun County garlic that my friend Cheryl brought back from one of her visits there a few years ago. We are still working on growing out enough of it to be able to actually eat very much of it, but it does make nice, big heads of garlic, and it has good flavor, too.

Photo below is of the two California early heads (left), the three cloves of Elephant garlic (center), and one of my Rabun County. Notice how the Rabun County is dwarfed by the garlic from Farmer D's:

I usually grow some grocery-store garlic along with the specialty garlics, but unless I see some heads with whopper-sized cloves, I'm going to stick with what I have now - the new garlic from Farmer D and the Rabun County that I've saved to replant. If all goes well, I'll have the garlic planted by Halloween.

Farmer D Organics had fruit trees and bushes for fall planting, and the strawberry plants are in. Onion sets will be in stock closer to Thanksgiving. The store seems to specialize in the small-scale food-growing that works so well in urban areas, and the people there were friendly. By the time I left, I was definitely in a good mood. It was a great field trip.

My Louisiana sister and I have been talking some about our fall gardens and planting the garlic and onions. Her planting date is later than mine, since she is more zone 9/10 than 7/8, but planning ahead is almost always good. To go with the garlic theme of our last couple of conversations, she sent a link to the amazing video below about using garlic in the kitchen.

How to Peel a Head of Garlic in Less Than 10 Seconds from on Vimeo.

Are you as astonished as I was? My sister and I are now both hunting for pairs of same-sized, large metal bowls.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Tenacity of the Summer Garden

The tomatoes just won't quit:

I pulled out the last two of the April-planted tomatoes, though, because when the first frost comes, I want to be more ready than I am. That first frost could come pretty much anytime now, though I don't actually expect it until about Halloween.

I ended up with another big pile of green tomatoes. A lot of these are far enough along that they will ripen within the next week or two, but some are too immature to ripen well, and I plan to use them in a green tomato salsa recipe that I found online.

I've already made one batch of this, and there was enough to use on one supper's enchiladas and then to mostly fill an ice-cube tray. The frozen cubes may seem weird to some people, but we don't always need the same amount each time we want to use some "salsa verde." Having the salsa frozen in cubes - then stashed in a freezer bag - means I can pull out just the right amount for the purpose at hand.

Eggplants and peppers are still coming into the kitchen, too. Some years the garden does better than in other years, and it is usually a mystery to me what makes the yearly differences so large. Of course, sometimes a less-productive year is totally my fault - the result of not paying attention to water or soil/nutrient needs, for example. This year, the weather has been so weird that a low-harvest year would not have been a big surprise, but the garden has, instead, blown me away with its productivity.

A delivery-guy I was talking with last week suggested that the shade in my yard (that I usually complain about) might have saved my garden from roasting in this overly-hot summer. Maybe he's right.

Regardless of the reason, the sweet potatoes seem to have done pretty well. I ended up with about 35 pounds from the 3x5-foot space they were planted in.

I always manage to resist brushing off the dirt and giving the sweets a good scrub, since those activities can damage the thin skins and result in sweets that rot rather than stay good into the winter, but the box of sleek, brownish, tapered shapes with "tails" makes me think I'm looking into a box of dead rats. The good news is that, when I get these into a basket on the kitchen floor after they've had a chance to cure, some of that dirt will have fallen off on its own and the resemblance will be less striking (I hope).

Later this week, I will get some mulch onto the bed that I dug those sweets from, and onto some other spaces, too. One whole bed, the one the melons were in, has been planted with a cover crop, hairy vetch. I've planted vetch for the winter before, and it is a pain to dig it back into the soil in spring, but I still had some seeds that I didn't want to waste.

That melon bed had been created as a "lasagna" bed, with compost from my yard and manure and bedding from a stable. When I checked that part of the garden after pulling out the melons, the top few inches were great, but below that was still solid clay. I'm hoping the roots of the vetch will help make little tunnels into that lower clay, giving the earthworms a little help in mixing the layers.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Gardens are always ending - and always beginning

Last Wednesday, the Plant-a-Row-for-the-Hungry garden group met for the last time at the Smith Gilbert Garden in Kennesaw, where it's been for the past six years. We harvested the last of the summer crops that were still in place - peppers and sweet potatoes - and we hauled the debris to the compost heap.

The final total of donated veggies for our 2011 garden year was 2710 pounds. Some of us still have at home some of the Seminole pumpkin squash that were too green to give away when we pulled up those vines, but those will all have finished ripening soon, and they will go to the Center for Family Resources - the pantry where we take our harvest - in another week or so. (Their weight hasn't been added to our total, yet.)

We had a great turnout for our last day at Smith Gilbert! This particular group of gardeners is just wonderful to work with. I feel very fortunate to know such great people every time I'm with them.

I'm in the plaid shirt, in front. Notice how I'm so short that I don't have to crouch down for the people behind me to be seen.

Some members of the group (but mostly just Fred) who have had a little free time have been looking into places to move the garden to, and we will have a few spots from which to choose. I am very happy that the group is ready to begin again! We will be meeting in about a week and a half to make a final choice, and to celebrate what we've accomplished this year.

When we have made that decision, it will be time to start getting the soil ready for next year. The fun will start all over again!

At home, the summer garden is thinking about ending, especially since we are getting some nighttime lows in the 40s. In spite of the onset of actual fall weather, we still have plenty of tomatoes. This is why I make that second planting in late June.

My fall veggies are mostly planted, but it isn't too late for one last crop of one of the faster-maturing radishes, and in a couple of weeks it will be time to plant garlic and multiplier onions that will mature in June, as part of next summer's garden.

This overlap of beginning and ending is one of the best parts of gardening. There's always something to look forward to. Even though it will be a little sad to bring in the last of the tomatoes in a few weeks, it also will be great to harvest the first bok choy, lettuce, spinach, beets, and other fall veggies. Some of these cooler weather crops will start to come to the kitchen before those last tomatoes are brought in.

When one season is coming to a close, another is opening up. When the soil temperatures drop and plant-growth slows to the point that it seems there's no growth at all, there is less work to do in the yard and more time to plan next year's garden -- what to plant and where, and how to improve the soil. And some of that work on improving the soil can begin in the less-rushed season of planning.

It's also a time to think about how the work of "putting food by" has panned out in terms of meals. That's part of gardening, too. If my little family's plan of making most our pasta sauce (and other foods that usually include a can of diced tomatoes) from our dehydrated tomatoes is successful, we will be very pleased.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Now and Later

The greens are planted in an area that gets less sun than they were planted in last year, so they are not quite as far along as I would hope, but the little plants are definitely recognizable.

This is one of the Capitan lettuce:

These are two of the bok choy:

And this is one of the Red Russian kale:

If the weather continues to be beautifully sunny with some interspersed days of good, soaking rains, the little plants will be nicely grown by the first frost.

I see that there are a few little weeds in the pictures, too, but I'll remove those in a couple of days, when I get another chance to work in the yard.

For the last several days, my yard work has focused on moving wood chips, left by a tree-removal company, from the middle of my front yard. The good news for me is that Joe takes care of most of the hardest work, but I still managed to make a whole bunch of my own muscles sore.

We had asked for one load of chips a couple of weeks ago, because they are great to use on the paths that run through the wooded back yard. When the tree-guys stopped by a week later with another load, asking whether we could use more mulch, I (crazily) said, "yes!"

The tree-guys were very happy that they weren't going to have to drive that truck-full of chips 40-or-so miles to where-ever they usually dump loads of chipped wood, so I was feeling pretty good about the whole thing until they actually dumped the chips. The pile was twice as big as the first pile, and it took some serious work to get it all moved.

Some of those chips are spread as mulch in places where the first load had to be laid a little thin, but a lot of it is now in three big piles that are not in the middle of the yard.

By the time next spring's garden is far enough along to need some mulch, those chips should have aged enough to be just about right for the purpose. If I am very lucky, some might be decomposed enough to dig in as soil amendment.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Only Constant is Change

At the Plant-a-Row-for-the-Hungry garden, where I am both volunteer and co-chair, we are in for some big change. The place where we have been growing veggies is going to be remade into a children's interactive garden. For the past few weeks, we have been looking at other properties that would work for our project.

It won't be the first move for this garden project; before moving to the Smith Gilbert Garden in Kennesaw, the project was on County Farm Road, on Cobb County property, in Marietta.

The space where we've been for the past six years is about 4,500 square feet. In our best years, we've donated about 2,500 pounds of food to the Center for Family Resources in Marietta. This year, our final total is going to be higher. We're already above 2,300 pounds, and the sweet potatoes are still in the ground!

These days, it seems especially important to keep the project going. More and more people are food-insecure (don't know for sure whether they will have food for every meal, every day), and most of those people are kids or older individuals who can't, really, provide for themselves. The Center for Family Resources does great work in helping to feed those people, and in helping the working-age and working-able people around them to get and keep jobs and housing.

With luck, we'll have identified a new space and started working on preparing the soil within the next couple of months.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Fall Garden's All In

Shifting from the summer garden to the fall garden involves a lot more work than I usually remember when I set out to make the change. Pulling out the old crops, amending the soil, tending the trays of transplants, getting everything into the ground in a timely manner - that all takes some pretty serious effort. The good news is that the work is usually spread out over several weeks, so no single week is too painful.

It's kept me busy, but the fall crops (except for another round or two of quick-growing radishes) are in the garden now. I started planting them in a particular sequence: slow-growing root crops like carrots, winter radishes, and beets that are all planted as seed went in first, then broccoli and cauliflower transplants, then the leafy crops as both transplants and seeds.

The beets and winter radishes are growing very well; the carrots are still tiny, but that is no surprise; and the broccoli and cauliflower are looking good.

It doesn't hurt that we finally had both some rain and some wonderfully cool weather. We still have plenty of summer veggies coming in, though. I pulled out some of the older tomato plants to make room for transplants of leafy greens, and I was left with a lot of tomatoes. The smaller green ones are going to be made into some green-tomato salsa, for use on winter enchiladas.

Two of the older tomato plants were left in the ground - the Wuhib paste tomatoes - because they are still producing incredibly well. There was just no way I could pull out plants with so many tomatoes on them when there is still so much time before the first frost.

The last summer veggie, the sweet potato crop, is at the "volcano" stage. That's when the magma-colored tuberous roots erupt from the soil.

Digging sweet potatoes too soon, or eating them before they have a chance to cure after digging, causes them to be a lot less sweet than they could be, so I haven't been in a big hurry to get those out of the ground. These should be just about ready, though.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Latest "Goings On"

Between finishing up some of the summer garden tasks and getting started on the fall ones, things here have been pretty busy.

Over the past few weeks, The Great Melon Experiment has progressed quite a bit. My melons, grown from seeds collected from hybrid plants, have been ripening, and I've been making decisions about what seeds to save for next year for my de-hybridizing project.

There has been some argument with the local chipmunks over whose melons these are, but we've worked out an arrangement. They get most of them; I ended up with enough to work with (the five pictured here, plus a couple more), but even a couple of those were pretty hotly contested -- note the scarring and other damage from little chipmunk teeth.

At first, I (naively) thought I'd probably save seeds from the earliest and biggest, but tasting the melons changed my mind about that pretty quickly. The earliest and biggest melon was plenty sweet, but other than the high sugar content it didn't have much in the way of flavor, and the texture was a little gritty -- not like sand, but not smooth, either.

After tasting the first few, I was wondering why I thought this multi-year breeding project was such a great idea, but then I tasted the little three-pounder. Oh my. It was sweet but also flavorful, almost buttery, and the texture was creamy-smooth. Deciding which seeds to plant next year suddenly became a "no brainer," and my original enthusiasm for the project returned in full force. The packets of seeds saved from each melon are marked with date of harvest, size at harvest, and flavor notes, and they are dried and tucked away for next year's garden.

Also completed is this year's popcorn harvest. Corn is probably not the smartest choice for a gardener working with a small space, but this really is a beautiful harvest:

Not only have I already cleared the old stalks away (chopped up and layered into the compost pile), but I've also been able to get the kernels off the cobs. These are pint-and-a-half jars, which means my little harvest has provided a quart and a half of popcorn.

The tomatoes and okra are still coming in at a fairly steady pace, along with an occasional eggplant, and the peppers are still rollicking along as though they were in their prime. I suppose they could actually be!

For fall crops, I have quite a lot of greens in flats, and root crops have been seeded directly into the ground -- if you don't count that the carrot seeds were first "sown" onto some paper towels to make wide-row seed tapes. Beets and winter radishes seem to be doing pretty well, in spite of the heat.

I've also planted broccoli and cauliflower transplants that I bought at a local store. It's been hot for their first week in the ground, but rain and cooler weather will be here, beginning at about 2 o'clock this afternoon, when the first rain-bearing bands of tropical storm Lee are expected to arrive. Already it is cloudy, and we are looking forward to the break in the drought and the heat. We are hoping, though, to avoid flooding!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Pickled Green Tomato Relish

Even though the first frost is a couple of months away, near the end of October, and summer gardens are still producing pretty well, plenty of gardeners are looking ahead, toward the end of the summer growing season.

One of my gardening friends has begun to pass around his favorite recipe for Pickled Green Tomato Relish. It's a recipe that makes full use of all the small green tomatoes that make gardeners hesitate to pull out those old tomato plants. We all hate to waste any of our good, fresh food!

This is his favorite relish recipe, and he says it's good "on everything!" The instructions assume that the gardener is already pretty familiar with canning.

10 pounds small, hard, green tomatoes
4 red peppers
4 green peppers (can use all green, if red aren't available)
2 pounds onions
1/2 cup canning salt
1 qt. water
4 cups sugar
1 qt. vinegar (5%)
1/3 cup prepared mustard
2 Tablespoons cornstarch

Sterilize canning jars. Wash and coarsely grate or finely chop the tomatoes, peppers, and onions. Dissolve salt in water and pour over the veggies in a large saucepot.

Heat to boiling and simmer 5 minutes. Drain veggies and return to saucepot. Add sugar, vinegar, mustard, and cornstarch. Stir to mix. Heat to boiling and simmer 5 minutes.

Fill hot pint jars with hot relish, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Remove air bubbles. Wipe jar rims and adjust lids. Process 5 minutes in a boiling water bath.

The book this recipe came from was probably printed before the newer canning books came out (I only saw a copy of the page, not the actual book); I don't think I've ever processed any canned foods for as few as 5 minutes! For safety, I expect to process the jars for at least 10 minutes. Other gardeners, those more prudent than myself, may want to put the jars into a pressure-canner rather than just the boiling water bath.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Like the Energizer Bunny

The summer garden keeps going ...

In general, the harvests have become more manageable (the tomato avalanche has subsided), but we have been processing peppers pretty steadily. Right now, there is an assortment of red peppers, both sweet and hot, in the dehydrator that I plan to grind up for "paprika," and I am contemplating another round of pickled pepper rings from the Golden Greek peppers (that are not at all golden) below:

These Feherezon peppers have been producing well all summer:

This year, I remembered to fertilize the peppers again after the first flush of fruits had reached full size, and that may have helped the pepper harvest. If they are treated well and manage to avoid diseases, peppers will produce until frost.

Another summer veggie that will come to the kitchen soon is the Pigott Family Heirloom Cowpeas. This little crop had been planted in the spot from which we harvested potatoes earlier in the summer, and it seems to like that spot just fine. One of the great things about all the summer peas is that they are so easy to harvest - it's almost as though the plants are holding the peas out for you to pick!

The variety of foods coming into the kitchen isn't tremendous, but the flavor is, and we have earlier crops in the freezer (zucchini, collard greens, green beans) if we get tired of tomatoes, peppers, okra, and eggplants.

There is still chard in the garden, but it is struggling a bit in the heat, and I am thinking about cutting the tops off for compost and letting the tops regrow in what will hopefully be cooler weather in the coming weeks. There is also Malabar spinach, which I like well enough to snack on when I'm out in the yard (like purslane) but not well enough for a big serving as part of a meal.

The first melons are in the fridge (photo to come in a day or two), and the Heritage red raspberries have been ripening their late-summer crop that appears on the first-year canes.

Overall, I've had a surprisingly successful summer garden this year.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Fall Garden Time

Last Wednesday evening, I gave a talk at the Mountainview Library (in Marietta) on starting the fall garden. I handed out a planting schedule, and I am pretty sure that many attendees were not all that happy to see that the time to start the fall garden is . . . now.

It doesn't help that this has been an unusually hot summer, but I when I see those "Christmas in July" fliers from the local crafts shops, I know it's time to get busy with the planning and soil preparation. To be honest, I am running a little behind.

Last weekend I started some seeds in the ground (Detroit Dark Red and Detroit Golden beets; winter radishes -- an assortment), and I also started a flat of seedlings to transplant to the garden when more spaces open up and the temperature outside has moderated a bit. I took the flat to the talk with me as a "visual aid."

I planted the seeds on Sunday afternoon, and then I set the flat on a shelf in the dining room. In summer, when it is SO VERY HOT outside, I get better germination if the flat starts out indoors. However, I left it inside one day too long. On Tuesday evening when I got home from work, I could see that some seedlings had emerged and were already taller than they should be!

I hustled the flat right out of the house and into the garden, where it now resides under some tulle - to protect it from insects. The above photo is from Wednesday, and the too-tall seedlings are pretty obvious. Since then, those have fleshed out enough that they don't look so strange, and a lot of other seedlings have come up.

This is what I put in the flat: Bloomsdale spinach, Detroit Dark Red beets (as back-ups for the ones started outside), Marvel of Four Seasons lettuce, Capitan lettuce, Bronze Arrow lettuce, Georgia collards, Red Russian kale, China Choy bok choy, Pan du Zucchero chicory, and Perpetual Spinach chard.

Today, I prepared the bed that the carrots will go in. I was going to plant them, but it looks like we will be getting some serious rain in the next 24 hours, and I don't want the little seeds to wash away.

I'll start more lettuces and spinach in a couple of weeks, when I plant the first "regular" radishes (probably French Breakfast).

Meanwhile, the summer veggies are still coming in. I pulled out the cucumber plants today, because they looked absolutely terrible, so this is the last of the cucumbers. They've been coming to the table for a month now, though, so I can't complain. They've been great!

Most of those tomatoes and a couple of the peppers went into a pizza sauce. The rest went into the dehydrator. The okra were promptly fried and eaten. I only planted six okra plants this year, and they are producing just enough to be a real treat. Of course, they will produce through most of October, so there is a chance that we will get tired of them at some point - but that's hard to imagine right now.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Unwelcome Guest

Plenty of people have mentioned to me this year that their gardens had been host to one or more tomato hornworms, but my garden had managed to miss those quite large pests until, apparently, the last day or two. I didn't notice it until today, but here one is:

What's really funny is that I didn't even see the four-inch caterpillar at first. You'd think a critter this large would be totally obvious, but the way it's lined up with the stem, and exactly the same color as the stem, helps keep it hidden.

Instead, what I noticed first was the big black balls of frass on some leaves. Then, knowing there had to be a caterpillar around somewhere, I looked more closely at the plant and figured out that a whole lot of leaves had gone missing. It took another minute or two of searching to spot the big, squishy culprit.

So far, I think there's only this one tomato hornworm, so I am going to leave it alone for the rest of the day and wait to see what happens. If all goes well, a brachonid wasp will find it and lay eggs on it, and I won't have to do anything. When the baby wasps hatch out, they'll eat the caterpillar and that will be the end of that. If no wasp shows up soon, though, I'll remove the caterpillar to prevent the total demolition of my pepper-patch.

Elsewhere in the garden, things are chugging along just fine. The husks on some of the ears of popcorn have dried, which means those ears are pretty much done, so I've picked those. Other ears of corn are still very green, but in a couple of weeks they'll be ready to bring in, too. Last year, I waited to harvest the popcorn until almost all the ears were covered in brown husks (dry), but a few ears had begun to mold. I don't want that to happen - it's a very small crop - which is why I'm bringing the ears in as they seem ready.

This year's popcorn is supposed to be red, but not all of the ears are. Some are dark red, some are kind of orange, and one that I brought in is sunflower-yellow. It's a beautiful mix!

I'm beginning to work on the fall garden today, but I realized that it actually was begun a couple of months ago, when I planted the parsnips. It's hard to find room for these when all the summer crops are going into the garden, but in January, when I want to add variety to the roasted root veggies, I'll be glad that I did.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Beginning Before the Ending

Even though the summer crops are still coming in (in a big way!), it's time to get moving on the fall crops. I'm hoping to get a flat of seedlings started on Friday; meanwhile, we are still in the "avalanche time" as far as tomatoes are concerned.

And when the first five plants quit pelting us with fruit, the next set of plants should begin. Little green tomatoes are beginning to form on the plants that I set out in early July.

In the side yard, the Great Melon Experiment is coming along pretty well. These plants were grown from seeds saved from fruits that grew last year on hybrid plants. The plan is to save seeds from the best resulting melons this year, and next year, and so on, until I have a great little canary melon for my yard that breeds true.

In all that vegetation, it's hard to see the melons, but they are in there. Interestingly, not all the vines produced fruit. A thorough poking-about has turned up only about eight melons. Some of these look exactly like their parent-melons, but some seem to be ripening a little differently. Flavor is the real test, though, so I won't know which seeds to save for next year until I crack open the ripe fruits. These got a late start, but the first melon should be ready within a couple of weeks.

This little patch of my favorite crowder peas was put in after the potatoes came out. These will be making peas for us into the early fall, so this part of the garden won't get any fall veggies for a while.

I have left a few bare spots in the garden, for example, when the first cucumbers came out. These will be directly seeded with fall veggies (probably beets and carrots).

The other cucumbers will be done soon, and the melons have only another two or three weeks. The early tomatoes may give out in that time-frame, and the husks on the popcorn are beginning to dry, so those spaces may be cleared soon, too. All those areas are fair game for fall crops. Having seeds started in trays or those little jiffy pellets (if I have any left from spring) to transplant into those spaces will help me get the most out of the garden. That's the plan, anyway.
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