Monday, September 22, 2014

Growing (and Eating) What's Good for the Garden

I tell new gardeners who are looking for information and advice that they should grow foods that they and their families like to eat. If no one in the family likes tomatoes, then their garden doesn't need to give any space to tomatoes, regardless of how much other gardeners rave about the amazing flavor of homegrown tomatoes. I don't, though, practice what I preach in choosing crops for my own garden.

One reason for straying from this really good advice is to improve my crop rotations. Several years ago, I decided that expanding my spinach/amaranth family plantings could help the garden, and one way to do that was to start growing beets, even though I didn't like them.

I could just have grown more spinach, but the phosphorus levels tend to be a little high in my garden-soil, and root-crops can use up some of that extra phosphorus. Over time, as a result of this decision, I've learned to prepare beets in ways that we like, and beets have become just one more good food that we look forward to bringing in from the garden.

I've been working on collard greens in about the same way. Collards are grown and eaten in my home-state of Oklahoma, too, but my Mom didn't serve them (she still doesn't like them), so I've had to work on this vegetable. It's taken a lot longer than the beets.

A good reason to grow collards, though, is that the whole Brassica family -- which includes collard greens -- helps suppress the root-knot nematodes that are a huge problem here in the South. The guys on whose garden/farm I volunteer on the weekends call the winter, mixed-greens crop (collards, kale, mustards, radishes) a "fumigant" crop for the good work it does in cleaning up pests in the soil.

We could all be growing broccoli and cabbage (also Brassicas) instead, but those crops tend to not stay as long in the ground. After the flowering head has been harvested, or a hard freeze come along and turned the plant to mush, it's all over -- but collards and other greens in the family can be harvested leaf-by-leaf, and it takes a heck of a freeze to take them out of the garden. The greens keep working on the soil all winter long, and tilling in the roots and any remaining leaves at the end of the season just frosts that cake of beneficial effects.

I'm writing about this today because last week, I came across a Yale Environment 360 interview with Dan Barber, a chef who has written about the importance of eating all that the farm offers as a way to support sustainable agriculture. The central example discussed in the interview was a farm that was growing emmer wheat, an ancient variety that Barber was excited about using in recipes.

This is the relevant bit of the interview:

"...I was standing in the middle of a field and all of a sudden discovered that he was growing very little wheat, and that instead he was growing a whole suite of lowly grains like millet and buckwheat and barley, and leguminous crops like Austrian winter peas and kidney beans. He was growing a lot of cover crops like vetch and clover. And they were all very meticulously timed and spread out among the 2,000 acres that I was standing in the middle of. And that’s when I sort if had this agricultural epiphany. But it led to this gastronomic epiphany, which was that here I was as a farm-to-table chef waving the flag of sustainability and realizing that I wasn’t supporting most of the farm. In the case of Klaas, he needed these lowly crops and cover crops and leguminous crops because his soil health needed it to grow wheat. You couldn’t get the wheat unless you grew all these other crops. And you had to time it in this way that brought the fertility to the soil to give you this incredible tasting wheat."

Most of us are not going to develop elaborate rotations for the production of emmer wheat, but reading the interview made me feel like less of a loon for growing -- and learning to prepare and eat -- crops that are not my favorites, all because I thought they'd be good for the garden.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Seeds are for Sharing

A gardening friend stopped by the office not too long ago, bringing with him a plastic "sandwich bag" full of pawpaw seeds. I've washed the big, brown seeds, stashed them in a little plastic tub to keep them damp, and they now are in a little fridge at work. If anyone wants a few, please feel welcome to call and/or stop by to pick some up (UGA Extension, Cobb County, 770-528-4070). I'd like for them to not go to waste.

I already have pawpaws growing in my yard, and there are several pots of seedling pawpaws on my back deck, from a drop-off of a dozen seeds earlier this year, and most of those also need good homes. To make fruit, cross-pollination is required, so two or more plants/seeds will be needed for each planting.

For me, pawpaws are a connection to home, because when I was growing up, my great grandfather had pawpaws growing in his yard in Claremore, Oklahoma. For anyone who is less familiar with these native fruits, Kentucky State U. has a helpful page about pawpaws.

I've said it before, but one of the best parts of my current job is that it places me in the hub of a wheel of garden generosity. Gardeners drop off extra seeds, sometimes even plants, and I get to move them along to other gardeners who can use them. It's a great place to be!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Mid-September in the Garden

It's almost as though the garden has taken a deep breath, and is yet to exhale. It will be a few weeks before the cool-season vegetables will begin coming into the kitchen, but much has been planted; of that, much has germinated and pushed out some true leaves. We are waiting.

Okra, peppers, and the late-planted bush beans and cowpeas are still ripening in the garden, and there will be another week or two (or three) of tomatoes. In October, I'll be digging up the sweet potatoes and peanuts, but the warm season crops are almost finished for the year.

Already I am looking forward to the winter radishes, to slice thinly and salt as an easy snack. I am ready, too, to leave behind the hectic pace of the summer garden. There is so much to harvest, and the weeds grow so quickly! There is a lot to do, every week. In the cooler seasons, it is much easier to keep up with the garden.

Besides the winter radishes, I've planted regular salad-type radishes, spinach, lettuces, chicory, cilantro, peas (that the yard-rabbits have mostly eaten down to nubs), beets, two kinds of kale, cabbage, broccoli, bok choy, carrots, collard greens, and a little more parsley.

The short row of parsnip seeds that I put in late has not germinated, but those seeds often are slow, so I'm not giving up on them yet. If I can find some cauliflower transplants this week, I'll add those to the garden, too.

Pulling the finished summer crops, amending the soil, and replanting has been some work, but the upcoming harvests will be worth the effort. Hope everyone else's gardens are growing well!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Saving Seeds for Beans

Part of my gardening includes saving seeds from some crops to plant next year. Beans are among the easiest crops for gardeners to save. The risk of cross-pollination is low, and cleaning the seeds is mostly a matter of shelling them out, sorting through to remove any that look "off," and waiting for them to dry before storing them in the fridge.

I usually place my seeds in the chest freezer for a few days after they seem very dry, before moving them into the fridge with the rest of the seeds, just in case there are any hitch-hiking critters in the seeds that might cause trouble in storage. These in the picture are almost dry enough to store.
Bush bean seeds to plant next year.
This is not the only variety of beans that I am growing and saving. The beans in the picture above are from some "Provider" bush bean plants, and the others, that only recently reached maturity, are my friend Becky's "Joanie beans."

Even though the risk of cross-pollination with beans is fairly low, I planted the Joanie Beans much later than the Provider beans, so there would be no chance of crossing between the varieties.

For all kinds of beans, it's best to leave the pods hanging on the plants until they are brown and dry before bringing them in to shell out for sorting and saving the seeds. As the Providers were reaching that stage, there was a lot of rain in the forecast, and I had to bring them in a little sooner than I would have preferred; if they had been left out in the rain, the risk of mold on the beans would have gone way up.

Most of the beans look good, though. For my little garden, the amount in the basket above is enough for two or three years of planting. That is very good news for my seed-budget! 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Garden Keeps Rolling Along

The three-day weekend was reasonably busy in the garden. Joe helped with the biggest job, using the grub hoe to churn up the cleaned-up squash/melon bed, so I could spread on a layer of compost and then set in the little plants I've been growing in a flat. The plants include a couple of kinds of kale, cabbages, cauliflower, beets, more cilantro, and a couple of broccoli.

I also worked more on clearing the last of the older tomato plants. I'd like to be able to plant that bed soon with spinach, bok choy, and winter radishes.

The bed I've saved for carrots still needs to have the buckwheat cut down, and there is a little space where the tomatillos were that will be available for re-planting after I've dumped some compost on it. Otherwise, though, the planting for fall is nearly done.

The first lettuces have developed some true leaves; the first cilantro looks less frail; the peas are a couple of inches high; and the cilantro, collards, and kale that I planted in the garden as seed a couple of weeks ago are all looking like actual little plants.

Meanwhile, we are still bringing in peppers, okra, and tomatoes (the Principe Borghese that were planted last have just recently begun to ripen), and the late-planted green beans and cowpeas will begin contributing to our meals later this week.

I had planted seeds for pickling cucumbers several weeks ago, to find out whether a late-planted crop was a possibility, and those are beginning to make cucumbers; however, the leaves already are very damaged by mildew, so I'm thinking that the late cucumber crop is going to be tiny. The plants won't last long in the garden at the rate they are going downhill.

I also sprinkled some critter repellent around the perimeter of the sweet potato bed. The chipmunks have already been in there, eating my little crop. I'd like for the little rascals to leave me some this year, and I'm hoping the repellent works.
I totally forgot that this year's watermelons would be yellow inside.  PHOTO/Amy W.
A highlight of the weekend was eating watermelon from the garden. This year's melons stayed smaller than they should have, but they were sweet, with good flavor and texture. I had completely forgotten that they would be yellow inside, so I had a very brief "uh oh" moment as I sliced into the first one. It is great that the garden offers so many surprises! I am never bored.

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