Monday, September 30, 2013

Chipmunks in the Sweet Potatoes

One night last week when I headed out to check the garden, I saw two chipmunks racing out of the sweet potato patch, with their tails at an unusually saucy, jaunty angle. The little critters looked way too happy to me, so I pulled back some vines in the area they seemed to have come from.

Chipmunk excavation in the sweet potato patch.
The rascals had been mining the garden! I found numerous excavations, all right at the bases of plants, so I decided to dig up all the sweet potatoes at my first opportunity.

That chance came on Sunday, and it turned out that the chipmunks had eaten pretty nearly all the sweet potatoes from the end of the garden nearest the creek.

There were a few, very small Porto Rican Golds and a few small sweets from the Annie Hall area. There won't be enough of the Porto Rican for me to eat any, but I might get to eat one of the Annie Hall.

Another chipmunk entrance to the sweet potato mine.
In better news, there seem to be plenty of the Purple Delight and plenty of Beauregard at the far end of the sweet potato bed. I haven't weighed the harvest yet; I know there will be less total weight than I had hoped for, but at least I didn't get totally "skunked" (or, in this case, "chipmunked").

The chipmunk discovery meant that I harvested my sweet potato patch a couple of weeks sooner than usual; typically, I don't dig the sweets up until sometime in October. If anyone out there is worried about running behind schedule in harvesting sweet potatoes -- don't worry -- you aren't! I am just early.

Hope all the other sweet potato patches have managed to escape the notice of the chipmunks!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Garden Update

September peppers.
There haven't been many photos in the blog lately, because I've had camera "issues." At this point, those issues are mostly resolved, so I finally went outside in daylight to take some pictures for a simple garden update.

The summer crop that is still coming in strong is the peppers. All varieties across the whole bed are doing well. The tomatoes, even the ones planted latest, are mostly limping along. I'm bringing in a few tomatoes each week, but not great piles of them like I would normally be harvesting in September.
Buckwheat cover crop, ready to be mowed down.

The buckwheat that was planted across the top of the spinach-beet bed is doing great. Soon, I will be mowing that down (or Joe will, with the weed-whacker), then turning it under to get the space ready for a winter cover crop.

Some animal(s) out in the yard have been treating the rows of spinach and beet seedlings like a personal snack bar, and I may, as a result, end up reseeding all those rows. This is an annoying turn of events, but not a total surprise. A creek borders our yard on one side, which means we have plenty of drop-in "guests" of the four-legged, furry persuasion. The creek is like a natural highway that connects parks and fields in the area. My yard is just a scenic-turnout that happens to also include a couple of fast-food establishments.

Cabbage-family snacks for rabbits.
 The cabbage and broccoli plants have established nicely and have begun to really grow, but the little green stick front-and-center of the photo to the left is the remains of another animal snack -- kind of like a broccoli-sicle stick instead of a popsicle stick.

However, I have another nine-pack of broccoli to plant, and it is enough to replace all of the most severely munched plants, with some left to plant further down the bed.

Healthy horseradish.
The horseradish, that we don't even really like to eat, is looking pretty amazing. The friend who gave me the chunk of root with which to start my plant said that the flowers would be lovely, but I haven't seen any flowers yet. I've had the plant for at least three years, so I'm thinking that I might not get to see flowers.

The plant is getting too big for its pot, and I'm expecting to re-pot it this coming spring, dividing the root to share and to make some horseradish sauce. Maybe I'll find a recipe for sauce that we like!

This year, most of my plants were in the ground, but I have seen horseradish so healthy that it threatened to take over whole yards. Mine is going to stay in a pot.

Over in the side yard, the sweet potato vines seem to be contemplating some kind of take-over. They have flowed into the next bed and across the newly-laid centipede-&-nutsedge sod that the water department put down after replacing the neighborhood water mains.
This year's sweet-potato glacier, slowly creeping across the yard.

In the picture to the right, a few okra plants can be seen along the left of the photo; they are holding their own among the vines and producing just enough okra for us to include some in a meal every few days.

It will be time to dig up those sweet potatoes very soon. I'm planning to manage that sometime in the first week of October. The slips were planted back in May, which means the plants have had PLENTY of time to make sweets for me by now.

Carrots to the left, winter radishes to the right.
The carrot and winter radish bed looks pretty good. There are still some places in the rows where carrots didn't come up, and it isn't too late to drop in a few seeds in those gaps. We are getting rain today, so it will have to be on another day, but I am thinking that there is still time for a few very late carrots.

The last seeds in won't yield mature carrots until sometime in the spring, but that's okay. I will have harvested plenty of other carrots by then, from the earlier-planted seeds.

Hope everyone else's gardens are doing well!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Growing Your Own: When Memories Collide

When I was at a gardening event in late spring, I was given a packet of Mississippi Silver Cowpeas by one of the exhibitors. I already grow two varieties of cowpeas, so I passed this packet along to another gardener. I spoke last week with the gardener, and it was easy to see that, for him, the peas brought up both good and bad memories.

He told about looking out over his father's field when he was a boy, seeing the stems of the cowpeas standing straight up with the pods sticking out at right angles, and knowing that he would soon be out in the field, under the hot summer sun, picking those pods. It was backbreaking work. Then he would spend HOURS shelling out the peas. Watching those Mississippi Silver peas grow and mature in the garden this year reminded him of that set of chores that he had dreaded as a boy.

However, after he'd shelled out the mature peas, he knew that they would have the flavor that was missing from the black-eye peas available in stores. The Mississippi Silvers were the "real thing." He had missed that flavor, and it turns out that a good way to get it is to grow your own.

I didn't have that particular childhood experience, but the first time I grew and prepared Pigott Family cowpeas, I knew that I wouldn't be going back to the bagged black-eye peas from the grocery store anytime soon. Luckily, even though I can grow only a couple of quarts of (dried) peas in my little garden, the farm where Joe and I volunteer on Saturdays grows plenty (this year it was Colossus, but that variety is still pretty good).

For a lot of people, beginning to grow some of their own food is a response to economic difficulties (either present or anticipated) or to concern over environmental problems related to large-scale agriculture, but there are some good, positive reasons for growing your own, too. One of those is the reward of exceptional flavor. Another, for some, is a childhood memory brought to life.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Fall Planting, Continued

I've made more progress in getting the fall crops planted, but I am beginning to fall behind. It's almost mid-September!

Last Saturday morning, I planted 102 cabbage-family plants out at the little farm on Dallas Highway where I volunteer. Joe was out of town, and most of the rest of the volunteers had been busy on the tractors the day before. That left just me to prepare the beds, space the transplants, make the holes, set in the little plants, water, then give each plant a shot of fish-emulsion as starter fertilizer. Can I just mention here that I was pretty tired after that long morning? 

In my own yard, I worked on clearing away the parching corn and preparing that space for planting. Then yesterday after work I managed to get my cabbages and broccoli in the ground.  Rabbits had eaten the tops off of most of the little plants that I had started from seed  -- I had set the tray of plants out in the yard, where the seedlings would get plenty of sunshine -- which means that about 3/4 of those plants in my garden now are from a garden center. This morning, though, they all still look good.

The carrots, winter radishes, beets, spinach, and patch of buckwheat (as a cover crop) that were planted earlier are up and growing. There are a few gaps here and there in the rows of vegetables where I will need to put in a little more seed, but not many.  The long stretch of rain that we had this year has made it seem weird to have to water the seedlings, but that's what I've had to do -- stand out in the yard with a hose to make sure the little seedlings don't dry up and blow away.

I still need to get the lettuce (and other various) seedlings into the ground, and I have some other seeds to plant. If all goes well, I'll manage to finish it all sometime this coming weekend.

Meanwhile, the patch of green beans that I planted in early July is providing plenty of beans, there are still peppers and tomatoes coming in, the eggplants look as though they are putting on a new flush of flowers, the sweet potato vines are sprawled all over the place, and just looking at all that exuberant growth makes me smile.

Hope everyone else's fall planting is on track!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Managing the Harvest

There's a post up at one of my frequently-visited news sites, Resilience.Org, about the frustrations of a gardener who can find plenty of information about sustainable (and small/urban) farming, but not all that much to help him in sustainable gardening.

The article by Erik Curran, "Sustainable Farming Mania is Frustrating Me," was originally published at Transition Voice.

He points out that there is a lot of information available right now (for example) about  the usefulness on small farms of including animals in the loop, which, as a suburban gardener, he just can't manage. As for many of the rest of us, keeping chickens and other livestock is not legal where he lives. This isn't the only sustainable-farming method/tool that doesn't apply to his little garden, but it's one he mentions.

A second, huge issue seems to be about handling the super-abundance of tomatoes (and other vegetables) that won't wait until he actually has the time to process them into a storage-able form. As someone who has spent time canning innumerable tomatoes in years past, I can sympathize. When we lived on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, we brought in tomatoes by the 5-gallon-bucketful (Every day! Day after day...). Over time, I've learned to plant fewer tomato plants.

Besides learning to "just say no" to too many tomato plants, part of the answer to managing the harvest at our house has been the use of a dehydrator. Canning take a lot of time and our full attention, but we can slice tomatoes, dice peppers, and cut up other fruits and veggies while watching something on Netflix ("Star Trek" episodes, Ken Burns' "The Dust Bowl," BBC's "Rosemary & Thyme"), let it dry in the dehydrator overnight, then store the dried produce in canning jars until we need it. This time of year, the dehydrator is "on" several nights each week.

Another part of the answer has been to plant some crops that don't need a lot of special processing for storage. This strategy saves a lot of time. Winter squash, onions, potatoes, garlic, shallots, sweet potatoes, and the kinds of corn that are stored dry -- the ones that are for popping, parching, or grinding into flour -- are stored pretty much "as is." No chopping or blanching is required. Cowpeas and other beans need minimal processing; they can be shelled when dry, left for a few days in a thin layer on something like cookie sheets to make sure they are Really Dry, then stored in canning jars like the other dried veggies.

Another part of the answer at our house has been to stagger the planting of big producers like tomatoes so that we are not overwhelmed. The former mountains of ripe tomatoes have become more manageable hills that appear sporadically all the way to the first frost. Right now in my yard, we are in a bit of a lull with regard to tomatoes, but there are two plants of paste-type tomatoes (Wuhib), planted in June, that currently are loaded with green fruits that will begin ripening soon. I've pulled up most of the earliest-planted tomatoes that had slowed in production due to disease issues (the Amish tomatoes are still in the ground and producing, and a late-planted cherry tomato is just now kicking in).

Managing the planting with the end in mind is hardest for new gardeners who haven't yet experienced how much food a tomato plant or a short row of pole beans can produce. Hopefully, the demanding piles of fresh food won't deter new gardeners from trying again in following years, with slight alterations in the mix and timing of the planting.

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