Monday, August 30, 2010

Eaten a dogwood yet?

I grew the fruit for years—and never tasted it—and never even imagined that I could eat it.

Then one day I was researching in Michael Dirr’s “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants” and read this about the fruit of Cornus kousa, the tree we commonly call Kousa Dogwood: “Drupe, pinkish red to red, borne in a ½ to 1” diameter, globose syncarp (resembles a raspberry...) … late August through October; edible but somewhat mealy….”

Dogwood drupes—fruit—“edible”? I apparently wasn’t impressed. I ignored Dirr’s statement. But last year I was sitting on the front porch reading one early-fall evening when I heard a loud “cough” nearby. I looked down the sidewalk and saw two does fighting over kousa drupes that had fallen to the ground. One doe had slammed her head into the other’s side—to warn her off, I imagined.

Dirr’s passing reference to edibility of the drupes and the does’ food fight suddenly added up in my slow gray matter: kousa fruit is edible. I walked to the tree, selected a dark red-pink drupe, looked it over, removed the long stem, and bit into it, albeit slowly and with curiosity.

What was it like? Outside: tough, like studded leather, raspberry-red color. Inside: smooth, yellow-orange flesh with “fresh,” nondescript flavor, but not sweet or juicy. Dirr was pretty much right on: “mealy,” but, I’d add, not offensive, not gritty or seedy.

I don’t think we’ll be lining up to buy kousa fruit at local fruit & veggie stands. The name, kousa drupe, isn’t a great marketing term. Pick a fruit from an apple tree, and you’ve picked an apple. Pick a fruit from a pear tree, and you’ve picked a pear. Pick a fruit from a dogwood tree, and you’ve picked—a dogwood. Makes great sense to me, and it’s definitely two-thumbs up over “globose syncarp.”

So the next time you walk near your kousa, pause, select a ripe dogwood, and sample it. And when you’re happy with this fruitful experiment, you have my permission to spit out the remains, which is what I did when I recently sampled Dogwood Vintage 2010.

But we're optimists, right? When someone asks about our fall gardens, we’ll reply with a smile, “Great. The dogwoods are coming on strong—good color, good size, good flavor too this year.”

We just won’t add, “Just ask the deer.”

What to Do with That Zucchini


Have you run out of ways to use the zucchini that are growing rampant in your garden? Before you resort to leaving them on your neighbor's doorstep, here are a couple of recipes to try.

Cold Zucchini Yogurt Soup
4 cups of raw grated zucchini
1/4 cup diced onion
One garlic clove- diced
1 and 1/2 cups plain yogurt
dash of curry powder or more to taste
salt to taste

Cook grated zucchini, onion and garlic covered over low heat with about 1/4 to 1/2 cup water until moderately soft (about 10 minutes) You can also use vegetable or chicken broth. Allow to cool and puree about 3/4 of the mixture in a blender until smooth. Add yogurt, curry powder and salt. Pour into storage container with remaining zucchini/onion mixture and refrigerate until chilled. Serve with a dollop of sour cream and/or chives. (You can puree the entire batch, but I reserve about 1/4 to add later to give the soup a bit of texture.)

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Chocolate Zucchini Nut Bread
3 cups of grated raw zucchini.
2 squares unsweetened chocolate
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking power
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/2 cups granulated white sugar
3/4 cup canola or vegetable oil
4 large eggs lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup chopped nuts (walnut or pecan)
Melt chocolate squares in microwave in large bowl. Grate zucchini and add to chocolate, mixing together well (I find this is a good way to blend in the chocolate which otherwise tends to stick to the bowl.) Add the oil and beaten eggs. Set aside. Sift together flour, baking soda and baking power and salt. Add gradually to zucchini/oil mixture. Add vanilla and chopped nuts. Pour into greased and floured loaf pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 45-50 minutes or until a testing prong comes out clean.
For an extra chocolaty cake, substitute 1 cup of chocolate chips for the nuts. Or live extravagantly and use both nuts and chips. Makes two loafs


Saturday, August 28, 2010

A soup I can't spell

One great thing about growing edible plants is that there are always new discoveries to make -- new to me, while at the same time ancient and traditional to others. This year I grew "Egyptian spinach" for the first time. It is better known as molokhiya, which can be transliterated from Arabic in so many ways that I can't decide on one and so will spell it differently each time I mention it here. M'loukhia has been grown in North Africa and the Middle East, and especially in Egypt, for thousands of years, and the leaves cooked into soup and other dishes.

I planted melokiyah in the spinach bed at the demo garden, which featured regular old spinach in the spring (and again in the fall, if this week's heat doesn't kill it), and spinach substitutes through the summer.
Here is the bed with the tall mulukhiya in the background, actually managing to hide the Malabar spinach growing on and behind it. New Zealand spinach is filling in part of the area between it and the chard (perpetual spinach) in front.

Here's a closeup of the meloukheya.

Its Latin name is Corchorus olitorius, and it is a member of the large and varied family Malvaceae, which also includes cotton, okra, cacao, baobab, durian, kola nut, and a number of other useful plants along with some annoying weeds. Corchorus is better known to many people as jute; the plant is processed for plant fibers in many parts of the world but originally in India.

It is also known as Jew's mallow, and is mentioned in the Book of Job in the Bible. If it's mentioned in the Koran I'd love to know that too (please comment if you know).

Milookhiyya has small yellow flowers and leaves up to about 3 inches long. Mature leaves have "horns" at the stem end that look almost like insect legs. I'm sure someone can tell me the technical term for these protrusions.

The most traditional Egyptian dish featuring this leaf also goes under the name melokheiya (or however you want to spell it). The Congo Cookbook is one place you can find a recipe. I followed this recipe for last night's dinner, as best I could. I'd only gathered a couple of ounces of leaf, rather than a pound, so I had to make all the quantities smaller, perhaps not in balance, and I think I didn't chop the leaves small enough. But the soup was warmly green-tasting, slightly spicy, and of an agreeably chewy texture: a little bit mucilaginous, but not as outright slimy as okra can be. I will make it again, both with melokiyah and with spinach, and will try the Egyptian leaf as a substitute in spinach recipes.

You can buy dried molohia in packets, as well as pre-chopped frozen, in groceries that carry North African or Middle Eastern products. Or grow it yourself; it is easy. My plants are now forming seedpods; I'm waiting to see if they will self-seed and come up next year in unwanted profusion, but I will certainly want a couple of plants. A nice discovery for me of a venerable friend to many!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Surprise Apple Pie

OK, I'm not making this up. This pie actually fooled the foodies at HGIC...and that says something!

Lynn Jacobson took home baseball bat sized zucchini from Bob Orazi and Jon Traunfeld, performed her magic, and turned them into Surprise Apple Pie!


Surprise Apple Pie
Recipe Credit: Doreen Connor Willington Baptist Church, Willington, Connecticut
Yield: 6-8 servings

unbaked pastry for double-crust 9-inch pie
4-5 cups peeled and sliced zucchini (remove seeds if using large zucchini)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
dash of salt
1 cup white sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose white flour
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Line a 9-inch pie plate with the bottom crust.

Blanch or steam the zucchini for 5 to 10 minutes, until tender crisp. Drain really well. Pour the lemon juice and sprinkle the salt over the zucchini.

In a separate bowl, combine the sugar, flour, cinnamon, and cream of tartar. Mix with the zucchini. It will become very watery. Pour into the pie shell. Cover with top crust.

Bake for 40 minutes. Let cool completely. The filling will thicken as it cools.

Surprise! Now you know what to do with that overwhelming crop of zucchini: just smuggle it in pie crusts to unsuspecting friends! Click HERE for a printable recipe card.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Too late to sow lettuce seed?

Disaster struck four times in a week and a half—torrential downpours that wiped out all but six of the lettuce plants that had sprouted from seeds I planted July 30. To compensate, I drove over to Sharp’s at Waterford Farm in Brookeville and bought two market packs, six plants each of Red Romaine and Simpson Elite, which I transplanted into our garden.

I felt better after buying the beautiful plants but still was a bit irritated that the downpours wiped out my own seedlings. So on August 24 I got out my remaining lettuce seed and my seed planting paraphernalia and in short order planted three more lettuce varieties—Forellenschuss in two yoghurt cups and Simpsons Curled and Flame in four cups each.

But was planting lettuce seeds on August 24 an exercise in futility?

Simpsons Curled matures in 45 days, which will be October 8; Flame in 50, October 13; and Forellenschuss in 55, October 18. When will we have our first frost—October 5, 7, 15, 20? I cannot predict, but clearly my anticipated lettuce harvest is not a certainty.

In addition to the number of days the young plants must have to grow to maturity, other factors include whether our early fall temperatures are “warm” or “cool” and how frost-resistant the three lettuce varieties are, as well as the exposure of the bed where I transplant them.

When I arrived at Sharp’s at Waterford Farm to buy the two market packs, Denise Sharp and I exchanged greetings. During our short chat, Denise commented, “Our fall plants are almost gone. Our greenhouse was full just three weeks ago.” When I entered the greenhouse, I found three-quarters of the tables empty.

That indicates to me that a lot of gardeners must be raising fall veggies. If you are one of them and have been sowing lettuce seed, what do you think about my August 24 sowing—OK, marginal, too late? And do you have a “tip” to share that lets you harvest fall lettuce through October, even into November?

Share your gardening wisdom, please, by posting a Comment.

Gutter gardens

Here's a great idea for small space gardens - planting in hanging gutters. See the informative post at the DigginFood blog for examples and pictures.

I wonder if you could set up a drip irrigation system to water your gutter gardens? It should be possible, with the right water pressure.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Leaves that don't leave us

I was going to post today on molokheya (Egyptian spinach) but decided to wait until I have a chance to try out a recipe. So you will hear from me on that this weekend. But while I'm (not) on the topic of green leaves that love our not-always-agreeable climate and hang around being delicious, and because I'm anticipating the fall gardening season where edible leaves are the focus, and because the summer's insects and fungal diseases have been so unkind to the appearance of many plants in the garden, I'd like to take a moment to appreciate leaves, edible or not, that have taken this summer's heat and drought and plagues and floods and still look great - a look that holds the garden together.

Watermelon leaves, shapely and plentiful:

This plant (or it might be two plants) went in late, so whether it will actually bear watermelons is unknown, but once it got established it took off and is covering about 50 square feet of space, competing with a winter squash that also got a late start.

You need a lot of square footage for watermelons. For zucchetta tromboncino squash, you should need a little less, IF you can persuade it to climb a fence. I failed at that this year, as you will see in the photo after this, but even if it's trying to take over the garden I still love it for its leaves and its long oddly-shaped fruit.

You can just see the curled squash under the leaves; if it had grown straight, hanging on a fence, it would be about eighteen inches long. The leaves are close to a foot wide. Zucchetta tromboncino is a Cucurbita moschata squash and therefore more resistant to vine borers than others.

Here's part of the bed the zucchetta is trying to swallow.

This is a nicely varied mixture of greenery: beans, squash climbing the bean trellis, a little glimpse of luffa (another great leaf plant), lemon grass with squash covering, peanuts I'm attempting to rescue from squash suffocation, and tiny-leafed Greek basil with zinnias in the front, being invaded by squash. Two weeks ago the mostly-dead cucumber in the middle was still bearing but clearly on the way out, so I mentally reserved that space for a row of turnips. When I came back a week later I could see turnips were out of the question, at least according to the squash (and it is hard to argue with a determined squash).

Not many edible leaves in the above (except for the basil) but here's one:

Not the zinnias. The sweet potatoes. Green heart-shaped ground cover, hardly touched by insects, little chance of disease, and you can eat both the vines and (of course) the tubers. Does need room to ramble!

I look forward to beautiful fall kale and lettuce, but summer has leaves to appreciate too.

Saving herbs for winter

Wondering how you can best save herbs for winter use? Then you’ll want to read Susan Belsinger’s article, “Fresh approaches: Two ways to make your herbs last longer,” in the Food Section of today’s Washington Post. From the article you can link to recipes for “Basil Paste” and “Fragrant Herb Syrup." To go to the article, CLICK HERE.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Tips for making "quick" tomato sauce

I couldn’t believe it. I had picked so many large red tomatoes—Celebrity, Big Beef, Biltmore, Brandywine—that I had filled two colanders and had to stack scores more of tomatoes on the nearby sidewalk. And then I put them into buckets—one large bucket and two smaller ones—to carry to the house.

What was I going to do with all the tomatoes? I picked out a dozen reasonably nice ones for our daughter to take to workmates. The remainders were blemished—several of the Brandywines split after a recent rain—many others showing significant damage from stink-bug sipping.

It was obviously time to pull out our big stainless-steel pot and make tomato sauce to freeze for winter. The recipe I use really isn’t a recipe. It’s “common knowledge”—at least for me—based on experience.
Ingredients: ripe tomatoes, onions, garlic, olive oil, basil and thyme, and seasoning.

The big chore is to prepare the tomatoes. I used to blanch them and then skin, core, and remove bad spots. Note the past tense. Last year I just washed and cored them and cut out bad spots, tossed them into a pot, and after they cooked for a while, ran them through a food mill to remove skins and returned them to the pot to continue cooking.

I was ready to do that again this year, but a couple of hours before I started, I stopped at the Home & Garden Information Center to drop off a couple of diseased cucumber leaves for analysis. One of the staffers, Ria Malloy, suggested a quicker way to process the tomatoes. She suggested that after I washed them, I should puree them—skins, seeds, all except core and bad spots—in a blender and then begin cooking.

“I literally wash off the tomatoes, cut out the core and any bad parts, and cut the tomatoes in large chunks over the blender to capture all the juices,” she explained. “And then I cook the tomatoes and other sauce ingredients for about two hours or until the sauce looks and tastes about right before eating or freezing it.”

Hey, I might save an hour’s work with that shortcut—and the sauce might be richer and more nutritious with the minute pieces of skin included. I did it—and admired the bright pink, frothy liquid that turned deep red as it cooked down with the onions and garlic I had sautéed in olive oil, plus some fresh basil and thyme that I added later.

Even though I had squeezed some juice and gel out of the tomatoes as I cleaned them, I ended up with lots of liquid that slowly evaporated as the sauce simmered for more than three hours. I was happy with the medium-thick result that I transferred into plastic freezer cartons, but it would be even thicker if I had simmered it another hour.

Thin tomato sauce isn’t really a problem at Meadow Glenn—because we just add a small can of store-bought tomato sauce or paste to thicken it when we heat it in winter. Ria’s sauce is even thinner, but that doesn’t worry her a bit. “I cook pasta in the thin sauce rather than in a pot of water,” she explained. “The pasta soaks up the extra liquid and ends up exceptionally tasty. Actually, extra liquid is good when you’re making lasagna with no-boil, ready-to-bake noodles.”

Now that the Tomato Sauce 2010 is in our freezer, I’ve just learned something on the Internet that may save me additional time when I make sauce next year: cook the tomatoes about 5 minutes after they come from the blender, and then let them cool for a half hour. The solids will float to the top, and the liquid and most of the seeds will remain on the bottom. Skim off the solids—or remove the liquid with a baster—and proceed with cooking your sauce. To read that suggestion, CLICK HERE.

What will I do next year? Should I remove the water from the puree with a baster—or is that too much work? Should I cook it two hours and then cook pasta in the thin sauce—or should I cook it three hours for a thicker sauce and keep cooking pasta in its own pot?

Please help me decide! Post a Comment with your personal recommendations and observations.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Cukes: dead in 10 days

What beautiful plants they were—four Burpee Bush Champion cucumber vines. Their dark green leaves were so healthy I sometimes paused just to admire them—and the brilliant yellow blossoms too. Soon I was picking beautiful cukes—then bucketfuls of cukes. We ate cukes—gave cukes to our daughter, friends, and neighbors.

About the first week of August I noticed yellowish spots on several of the largest leaves. I took a photo on August 6. A day or so later several leaves began to curl at their edges and turn brown. By August 12 the plants were essentially dead, except for a few young leaves at the ends of vines and for scores of yellow blossoms that never would be cucumbers.

On August 16 I told my story and sent two photos to the experts at the Home & Garden Information Center of the University of Maryland Extension via the HGIC website. What had happened to my cukes? What could I have done? What do you advise for next year?

A reply came the next day. “It might be downy mildew, especially since it moved so fast….[B]ring us a sample if you still have any green material showing symptoms.” Since I had pulled up the pitiful remains of the four Bush Champions that morning, I went out to check for samples, removed two young leaves with yellowish spots, laid them flat in a plastic bag, and took them to the HGIC office.

A plant disease expert examined them the next morning but didn’t find downy mildew spores, perhaps, I suspect, because the only leaves I had were so young. But the feeling was that downy mildew may have killed my cukes. The circumstantial evidence: the speed of plant decline from first symptom; the yellow spots as first symptom; confirmed downy mildew was killing cukes in other places in the county at the same time; and August and September is prime time for the disease to strike.

I’m not happy that my cukes are done for this year. But I’m already planning on following the HGIC suggestion that I select seed of a variety resistant to downy mildew next year. HGIC also said I could compost the dead plants, since downy mildew doesn’t overwinter in Maryland—and added that the spores probably arrived here this year via wind from the South or from Canada.

Which varieties are resistant?

I’ll have to look for indications of downy mildew resistance in seed catalogs. HGIC recommended I check the cucumber section of the Cornell University Extension website, which contains lists more than 5,000 vegetable varieties resistant to a variety of diseases.

What could I have done to save my Bush Champions?

“Nothing,” HGIC advised.

I’ll be researching resistant varieties this winter—perhaps between shifts running my snowblower. And snow isn’t a bad thought in Summer 2010, when we’ve already had 54 days of temperatures of 90° F. or more. Where are my memories of last winter’s 80 inches of snow?

If you've grappled with downy mildew in your garden and have found resistant cucumber varieties, please post a Comment with your recommendations.

Additional information: The Plant Diagnostics tab at the University of Maryland Extension’s HGIC website contains additional information about downy mildew, including 12 tips to help keep it out of your garden. To go there, CLICK HERE. To begin exploring Cornell University Extension’s “Vegetable Varieties for Gardeners,” CLICK HERE.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Melons for mice

Those of you who've been reading my blog entries for a while know that my favorite vegetable plant (that I only discovered last year) is Melothria scabra, the mouse melon or Mexican sour gherkin. Why do I like mouse melons so much? Well, first of all, they are adorable.

Usually when I'm asked to grasp at a description, I say that they taste like cucumbers (one-bite snack-perfect crunchy slightly-sour cukes) but look like tiny watermelons. They are in fact neither melons nor cucumbers: not in genus Cucumis or Citrullus nor from the same part of the world originally (cucumbers probably originated in Asia, melons and watermelons in Africa; mouse melons are from Central America), but they do belong to the family Cucurbitaceae (you can see a family resemblance in the dainty leaves and itty bitty yellow flowers).

No size context in the above picture except for me telling you itty bitty and tiny, so here's a comparison shot. I was going to pair one with a grape but I don't have any grapes right now. So Mouse Melon vs. Cherry Tomato, instead:

Aside from cuteness and snackability, I like them for their vigorous growth. The plants have few insect problems (in fact they seem to be a hangout for beneficials) and so far I haven't lost any to the bacterial wilt and powdery mildew that kill cucumbers right and left in the same garden. They are a little hard to get started; germination (inside in April or outside in May) is pretty reliable, but those delicate stems and tendrils are subject to damage from cold or rough handling. My plan next year is to hold them in pots longer, until they are really ready for the big bad garden, but give each pot its own small trellis, because a tray of mouse melon seedlings is a tangled disaster in the making. They want to climb, but they want to intermingle even more. The plants growing on the cattle panel arbor in the demo garden had a period of wanting to bush out down at the base, but now they are climbing pretty well.

And just as I anticipated, we can now pick mouse melons overhead from under the arbor. We picked a lot this week, so I finally had enough to try pickling them. I made refrigerator pickles (not canned, must be kept in fridge, last a few weeks if you don't eat them before that) and I'm not going to include a recipe since if you don't already pickle you can search one out and if you do pickle you are better at it than me. But they turned out quite tasty.

The last reason I like mouse melons, that may appeal to some readers as well? If you grow them (look for the seeds under the name Mexican Sour Gherkin), you may well be the first on your block (or in your town) to do so. Although if I have anything to do with it, that won't be the case for long. A million mouse melons for Maryland? Maybe.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Hoe, hoe, the wheel hoe comes round again

Barbara Damrosch’s “A Cook’s Garden” column in the Local Living Section of today’s Washington Post features today’s version of the wheel hoe—you know, the big-wheeled cultivator our parents and grandparents used. To read her column and see a photo of a modern wheel hoe, CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Saving some gold for winter

I remember Grammie Dickson in the late 1940s stirring, stirring, stirring the contents of her dented aluminum pot on her kerosene stove, adjusting the flame occasionally, and stirring, stirring, stirring. She was making yellow tomato preserves. When she declared the preserves done, she’d ladle the golden liquid into assorted “jelly glasses” she was recycling, and cover the tops of the hot preserves with shaved paraffin, which melted from the heat of the preserves and sealed them for later use.

In the 1950s I remember my mother making yellow tomato preserves. She explained the unwritten recipe for this edible family heirloom: equal measures of yellow tomatoes and sugar plus fresh lemon. Mother shortened the cooking time and added pectin, but, she never thought her preserves quite measured up to Grammie’s.

About 15 years ago I started growing Yellow Pear tomatoes and began trying to duplicate Grammie’s preserves. I cooked the tomatoes with skins on, my theory being that the skins contained pectin that helped gel Grammie’s preserves, but mine remained too thin. Over the years I experimented, adding pectin, cooking the tomatoes longer, running the mixture through a food mill, and blanching and skinning the tomatoes.

But my preserves never measured up to Grammie’s—until this year, that is, thanks to the Internet.

One night I searched on the Internet for “yellow tomato preserves recipe.” Suddenly I was confronted with pages of recipes, most not resembling what I sought. But one, at cooks.com seemed similar to our family’s recipe. It called for five pounds of yellow tomatoes, five pounds of sugar, two thinly sliced lemons, all simmered for three hours, stirring every 15 minutes.

Three hours? I had thought one hour was more than enough.

So in the garden I picked five pounds of Yellow Plum tomatoes, blanched, skinned, and quartered them, tossed them into a stainless steel pot, added five pounds of sugar and a huge thin-sliced lemon, and simmered the mix for three hours, stirring every quarter hour—stirring, stirring, stirring.

After three hours, the mixture had melded into a deep golden color with slight citrus fragrance. But on the final stir, I thought the preserves still too thin. Should I trust the recipe—and bottle and process the preserves in the hot canning bath—and hope the liquid would gel over the next few days or weeks? Or should I add some pectin?

I consulted an information sheet from a pectin box, figured out an approximate amount, and added two packets. As I continued stirring the simmering gold, I could feel the mixture begin to thicken. I knew I had made the right decision.

I ladled the preserves into seven eight-ounce and six four-ounce jars, processed them in the canning bath, and listened happily as they cooled on the kitchen counter and their clicks announced proper sealing. I could have canned another two jars, but a laborer deserves pay for his work, don’t you think? I filled two Pyrex bowls and put them into the fridge after they cooled, but not before taking a knife and covering a Wheat Thin, or was it ten, with thick yellow tomato preserves—just like Grammie used to make.

What made the difference this year? I don’t think it was our electric stove or our stainless steel pot. Proportions of ingredients were about the same, but maybe measuring by weight instead of volume was important. I think using Yellow Plum, rather than Yellow Pear, tomatoes was a plus because the plums have more substance. I think the pectin ensured that my preserves were firm, but not so firm as to require hammer and chisel for serving. Perhaps the biggest difference was the three-hour cooking time, which truly melded the tomatoes, lemon, and sugar into our family’s edible heirloom.

As the jars of golden preserves a day later sat on our kitchen counter, I paused to enjoy the sight. They represent four hours of work—not counting growing the tomatoes and or the time I’ll spend scouring the stovetop. Friends and we will enjoy the jars of gold through the coming winter. I’ll not hesitate to recommend the perfect combination: a buttered, toasted English muffin topped with a spoonful of yellow tomato preserves. Each bite will duplicate in the 21st Century what our great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents experienced in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

From mouth-watering treat to family history, there’s gold in my jars of yellow tomato preserves.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Flowers not doing their job

The photo of scarlet runner beans (by MG Katherine Lambert) is to appease those who might be visiting for Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day expecting to see, you know, blooms. Please visit May Dreams Gardens for lots and lots of beautiful flower pictures and interesting text about them.

Those of us who garden for food as well as beauty know that flowers have a purpose: they make seeds, and in some cases a fruit or other edible casing for the seeds (we also eat the flowers on occasion). And though this mostly works just fine, there are times when due to circumstances beyond their control, flowers fall down on their job. Literally.

Raise your hands: how many of you here in Maryland (or other parts of the country hit by horrible heat waves) are having a good summer for beans? If you are, please leave me a comment telling me what variety you're growing, because I need to know for future reference! I was expecting a bumper crop of beans from the demo garden (to donate to Manna Food and to eat ourselves). We planted Rattlesnake, Blue Coco, Grandma Nellie's Yellow Mushroom, Borlotto, and both ordinary and dwarf runner beans. The result: about two handfuls of fresh eating beans. I did harvest enough Borlotto in the dry stage to use for next year's seed, and until they were attacked by stink bugs they were handsome plants; here are the beans in "green" stage:

We also lost a scarlet runner to Mexican bean beetles, and the rest of the plants don't look too great either. But the insects are not the cause of our pitiful harvest. And it's not the humidity; it's the heat.

Beans exposed to continual temperatures of over 95° tend to be unsuccessful at setting seed (meaning seed pod, meaning delicious bean). Flowers form, but simply drop. Runner beans have the same problem at even lower temperatures. Actually, our runner beans are still making flowers, though I have seen only a few beans form earlier in the summer; the other beans don't seem to have any flowers at all. I am hoping that if we can keep the plants alive with all these stink bugs crawling on them, they will start making pods now that the temperatures are cooler. But it has been a disappointing summer, bean-wise, so far. (I bought beans at the farmers' market yesterday, so clearly someone is managing to grow them. Bush beans are probably more successful in these conditions -- but I like pole beans!)

Flower drop is also a problem in squash, tomatoes and peppers, but tends to happen when temperatures are too cool.

I try to be philosophical about this bean dearth. It's an illustration of how a plant doesn't grow just so we can enjoy the pretty flowers or the delicious fruit, but instead is an entity dedicated to its own goal of reproduction. The bean plants must "know" that seed set at high temperatures would not be successful, either because it wouldn't form right, would rot, or would not germinate. So they just... take a break. Not a bad idea when it's 95°. I hope today (at just over 70°) they are reconsidering their strategy. I expect to see flowers when I next visit, beans! You are on notice!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Tree prunings: rustic charm for veggie supports

Want to add a little rustic charm to your veggie garden—and save some money in the process?

Mary Silver of Clarksville builds what she calls “supports” for her cucumbers out of tree branches that she prunes from her home landscape.

“I got the idea from my dad, who told me that farmers used to cut limbs from their trees and place them in their gardens for their cucumbers to climb on,” explained Mary, a second-year gardener at Westend Community Garden of Columbia Gardeners, Inc. “I liked the idea because the supports I build have a natural look that blends in well with my garden. And I’m saving money because I’m using something that’s growing around me, not buying some manufactured support system for my plants to grow on.”

Most of the trimmings Mary collects are about three-quarters to an inch in diameter, many of apparent cherry or birch origins. “I use whatever is available,” Mary said.

“I trim off the side branches and temporarily store what my husband calls ‘sticks’ under our deck at home,” she said. “Then I bring them to my plot at Westend Community Garden and lash the branches together with twine, which is biodegradable at the end of the season. Then I train my cucumber vines up the support, which keeps my cucumbers off the ground, saving space in my small plot and encouraging the cucumbers to grow straight.”

Mary began building the supports this year. “The sticks really dry out quickly, so I’ll probably use them only one growing season, maybe two,” she said.

And next year?

“The supports have worked so well for my cucumbers that I’ll use them again, and I may experiment with building tree-limb cages for my tomatoes.”

Rustic cages, I’m thinking, for heirloom tomatoes—Brandywines, perhaps—could start a whole new, frugal, sustainable, and attractive garden tradition.
.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Welcome to the jungle!

Yes, my garden is a hot mess! It's been too hot to go out there and tend to things. But I harvested so many tomatoes (cherry, plum and sandwich types), lots of peppers (bell, jalapeno, chili and cherry bomb).

I also harvested an eggplant. I made tacos today and used some garden fresh tomatoes as one of our toppings. They were so sweet and warm. Oh it was yummy!

As you can see--or not see for all the foliage--I have a lot of basil that I need to pick. I think a nice pesto to go with some of my maters is certainly in order. Soon, another gardening season will be coming to a close. But for now, I have a watchful eye on the only two cantaloupes I have growing this year. One should be ready in another week or so. While my garden was a bit stingy this year with its harvest, I am thankful to have received the bounty that I did today. Take a look!




Yes, that is all from today's harvest. I am going to freeze the peppers and take some of the maters to my mother-in-law. I wish my parents lived closer so that I could give the eggplant and some maters to my mom (sorry, Mom).

I may try my hand at some fall plantings, but honestly it's a little past the date to get a harvest before the frost. But I'm not giving up on my garden just yet. I think there's still another harvest or two of maters out there.

I'll give it until the end of August. Me thinks my next blog will most likely be on amending the soil....oh....and maybe planting some garlic and onions to overwinter and be ready for spring!

Well, this is all for now. Until next time garden gals and guys!

Happy gardening!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

What's in a name: Vates collards

Today was an odd demo garden workday. We had a big thunderstorm at SIX-THIRTY A.M., thank you, and after waiting for the rain and waiting in the traffic I got to the garden about two hours later than usual, and then proceeded to run around like crazy trying to get all the tasks I'd scheduled done. The most important was getting some kale, broccoli and collard seedlings in the ground.

I find putting in fall crops in mid-August counterintuitive (it is still SO hot!) but in fact this is a little late for some of them (I despair of my still-tiny brussels sprouts). Most of the plants got row covers put over them, to help keep out the rabbits and the harlequin bugs, and shade the ground a little. My seedlings have been pampered under lights in the air-conditioned house, and I did not harden them off as HIGHLY recommended (is it still hardening off in the summer? Softening up?) because I know from experience that if I bring cabbage family seedlings outside, even to sit in trays on a shelf on my deck, some squirrel will decide that they are lunch. So I hope they do well in this first critical week. It looks like nature will be watering them, at least.

Anyway, the point of this post is that one of the varieties I grew was Vates collards, and I started to wonder where the name had come from. Perhaps I'm the only person who didn't know this, but there was no Professor Vates or Farmer Vates who developed this strain (known for its heat resistance, which will be well-tested). It was in fact named for:

The Virginia Truck Experiment Station

which is today known as the Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center of Virginia Tech. So there you are. I live in hope that someday I will (probably accidentally) come up with a new cultivar in the Montgomery County Master Gardeners Demonstration Garden, which can henceforth be known by the name Mocmagdeg.

Collards are strongly associated with the Southern U.S. and African-American culture, but in fact they (along with the other brassicas or cabbage family members) are native to Asia Minor and the Mediterranean region, and have been grown in Europe for millennia. Julius Caesar ate collards! Collards and kale are two variations on the same plant, distinguished by leaf type, color and flavor. Both names come from Germanic or Anglo-Saxon words for cabbage. The various brassicas traveled with early European settlers to America, and when slaves were brought from Africa they adopted collards for their own gardens, as they could be grown easily with little time to spare, lasted through several seasons, and provided essential nutrients to an otherwise insufficient diet. Collards are very good for you, and can be prepared in lots of delicious ways.

Collards, kale, and the other brassicas don't mind frost; in fact it sweetens them. So keep your plants growing through the hot late summer and into the fall and even through the winter. Here are our wintered-over collard plants in April, after all that snow:

The leaves were a mite tough by then, but I enjoyed snacking on the flower buds, which not surprisingly tasted just like broccoli.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

For rent: “Bob’s Sustainable Sweet Potato Protectors”

I’ve finally dreamed up a solution to the perplexing problem of how to prevent voles, commonly called meadow mice, from eating sweet potatoes growing in your garden.

I still remember the desperation of two Columbia Gardeners who approached me after my Master Gardener presentation on “How to Grow Great Tomatoes.” They were thinking sweet potatoes, not tomatoes. Voles were tunneling into their sweet potato beds and eating the growing sweets, “leaving just shells” for the gardeners.

I’ve never grown sweet potatoes but ventured two suggestions—peanut-butter baited snap traps or a physical barrier—some sort of wire, perhaps. Since then Erica Smith has posted a blog showing how Master Gardeners dig a trench and install hardware cloth at the Montgomery County demonstration garden to keep voles out of the sweet potato patch there.

And this week I’ve thought of another possibility—one that eliminates all the hassle and work of buying and installing a hardware cloth barrier. I am going to start a business where I’ll rent out trained black rat snakes, commonly called blacksnakes, to live in sweet potato patches and eat trespassing voles.

I got this brilliant idea on Monday, when I returned from buying a new battery for my pickup truck. Ellen the Quilter, busy at work on two gift quilts for young daughters of a friend, greeted me with her finest “you’ll never guess” look.

“Guess what I found in the utility room when I went to get chlorine tabs for the pool?”

“A white-footed mouse?”

No, that answer would have been too simple. To make a long story blog-length, Ellen had discovered a 30-inch black rat snake in the corner, “behind the broom,” of the small, 6x6 room.

“Did you catch it and let it loose in the woods?” I asked, hoping to indicate my faith that she was quite capable of doing so. You need to know that our son, Brian, during his teen years raised a “pet” boa constrictor from cute babyhood to about six feet—a boa, by the way, that Ellen and our daughter, Lynn, from time to time discovered exploring our downstairs living area when it escaped its cage.

“No, I didn’t catch it,” Ellen replied. “It’s still there….”

The pause was easy to fill in mentally … “and please, Bob, you do the honors.”

About 55 years ago, I had earned an “A” in a college herpetology class by catching a copperhead in the mountains near Headwaters, Virginia. And from time to time I still don’t mind doing such honors, especially when the snake is a blacksnake, a common non-venomous constrictor here in the East that preys on mice, rats, chipmunks, birds and their eggs, and voles.

Did you note that last word—“voles”?

Well, I used a Cape Cod weeder as a “snake stick” (L-shaped, with short lateral bar to press on snake’s neck just behind head) to catch the intruder. I must admit, the blacksnake wasn’t in a particularly happy mood. It retreated behind wires and storage bins in the small room. When I cornered it, it coiled and hissed and struck at the weeder.

But eventually I outmaneuvered the snake, got the weeder on its neck, grabbed the snake just behind its head, and marched triumphantly up the back sidewalk to our kitchen door, where Teddy, our guest Maltese granddog, began barking as if to say, “No way do you bring that thing in here.”

Later I released the small constrictor into a brush pile on the edge of our woods, the preferred habitat of blacksnakes, often known as “friends of farmers” because of the toll they take on rats and mice. Because blacksnakes are good climbers—remember they eat birds and their eggs—they probably are the most frequent snake visitors to homes in this part of the world. They don’t mind climbing a step or two that would discourage other species.

I suspect the blacksnake I caught wandered into our utility room while hunting for a white-footed mouse or a vole in our blackberry patch, which is just outside the door. How it got through a sliding screen and glass doors is a mystery, but in summertime they’re not closed 100% of the time.

But back to voles and sweet potatoes. Since blacksnakes love to dine on voles, I’m thinking of training a few as “Bob’s Sustainable Sweet Potato Protectors” and then renting them out to gardeners who want more than “shells” when they harvest sweet potatoes.

But the brilliance of my idea is beginning to fade already.

What if training a snake to guard a garden is as hard as training a cat to bring in the morning paper?

Second thought, I’m sticking to recommending hardware cloth for protecting sweet potato crops.

Post Food Section on tomatoes

The Washington Post Food Section’s annual special on tomatoes is today. Included are some recipes you might want to try, such as Tomato Watermelon Salad, Fresh Tomato Ketchup (better than Heinz, is the claim), several soups, including the top prize winner, Cream of Tomato Soup with Seafood, and Tomato Lemon Mint Salad. For a sample recipe, Yellow & Purple Tomato & Piedmont Onion Pie, which Ellen and I plan to try soon, CLICK HERE. But if you’re a tomato lover, do yourself a favor and surf over to today’s Food Section in the Post and check out the whole issue. Note the 16 tomato recipes listed in the "This Week's Recipes" column to the right.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Preserving a cantaloupe ?




In home preserving, drying, canning, and freezing are the most common methods to use.

For some veggies/fruits like tomatoes, the options for preserving are large; for others like cucumbers, the choices are more limited. Sure, you can ferment cucumbers, which is a very long process – or freeze some in cubes – ice cucumber-mint tea anyone? But pickling is probably your best bet.

For other vegetables and fruits, you need to think outside the box. Take, for example, cantaloupe. You can freeze some pieces for smoothies or even pickle it (not for me), but when you have 3 cantaloupes in the fridge and 7 on the way in the garden, you need something to help you to use them. Sorbet or granita is a good idea but we, at home, prefer ice cream. The Ben and Jerry’s homemade cantaloupe ice cream recipe we have can swallow a large cantaloupe without a problem. It’s easy to do with the right equipment.

Another way to preserve cantaloupe is to make fruit leather. In short, leathers are dry- rolled sheets of pureed fruits. According to the Excalibur’s guide to food dehydration – the maker of my dehydrator – some basic guidelines must be followed, for example: mixes with nuts must be kept in the freezer. Other than that, this is a good way to use slightly overripe fruits. Your imagination is your only limit!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Fall broccoli checklist: seedlings, worm poop, straw, tutu fabric

Susan Levi-Goerlich went down her checklist as she prepared to plant a fall crop of broccoli: 13 seedlings, box of worm poop, straw, and tutu fabric.

Susan, a Howard County Master Gardener, considers herself a “beginner” when it comes to vegetables. “I’ve grown tomatoes in containers on my deck for several years,” she explained, “but this is just my second year of gardening in the Westside Community Garden,” one of three such gardens of the Columbia Gardeners, Inc. “I love gardening here. After I’m finished working in my plot, I go sightseeing and check out what other gardeners are doing. I get to see what works and what doesn’t work, and people very generously share advice and suggestions.”

Susan started her broccoli seedlings under fluorescent shop lights in her home utility room. “I love starting plants from seeds. I used Burpee’s Green Goliath seeds. For pots, I used the plastic pint containers that blueberries come in. They have built-in drainage holes and give the plants plenty of room for their roots to develop. I started the seedlings about two months ago and then hardened them off outside for about a week. Some of the leaves got a little sunburned, but overall they look pretty good.”

Green Goliath matures about 55 days from transplanting, so Susan expects to begin harvesting broccoli in early October. “I grew broccoli last fall, and it did so much better than the broccoli I planted this spring. I’ve heard that my experience is pretty typical of this area—broccoli prefers cooler fall temperatures.”

Susan, who presents a popular Master Gardener educational program on vermicomposting, fertilizes her garden with worm castings, known to giggling youngsters everywhere as “worm poop,” from red wiggler worms that compost the vegetable scraps from the family’s kitchen. When she dug holes for the broccoli seedlings, she trowled a heap of castings into each. “Broccoli is a heavy feeder. It seems to do well with the castings. I don’t supplement it with commercial fertilizer,” she said. Tiny red wigglers squirmed as she added the supplement to the planting bed.

After she firmed the soil around the transplants, Susan mulched with straw. “That will help minimize weeds and keep the soil shaded and cool around the young plants,” she said.

And then she adds the crowning touch to her broccoli planting—tutu fabric, more formally known as tulle—to protect the plants from cabbage butterflies and moths and harlequin bugs.


“I buy the tulle at Jo-Ann Fabrics, and I choose the netting with the finest mesh. It’s made of nylon and is 54” wide. For a 4’-wide bed I seam two pieces together. I use it like a floating row cover, but because it’s black, it blends into my garden better. I anchor the edges with stones and with PVC pipe along the long sides of the bed. I wrap the extra fabric around the pipes and then unwrap it as the plants need more growing room. In addition to protecting the plants from insects, I think the fabric gives them a little shade from the hot summer sun.”

Susan says the tutu fabric works for her. “I like watching the cabbage butterflies try to figure out a way to lay their eggs on the underside of the broccoli leaves. They give up and go look for an easier target. The netting keeps out the harlequin bugs too.”


When she’s not gardening, Susan is a fabric artist. “Much of my work is inspired by garden imagery. Up to now it’s mostly been flower gardens. But I’m working on a piece now based on a friend’s garden, and it includes corn too,” she said. To see examples of Susan’s fabric art, CLICK HERE.



Friday, August 6, 2010

Grew it, ate it

Here are a few recipes for the harvest.

First, from Gordon Clark of Montgomery Victory Gardens, a salad to celebrate his first successful attempt at growing muskmelons.

Golden Beet and Melon Salad: Just grate a few golden beets (as if you were making a slaw), throw in a couple of grated carrots, some mint, and then marinate for a couple of hours in a "dressing" of orange juice with a tablespoon of lemon or lime juice. Then, just before serving, chop some melon into bite-sized pieces and mix it in.

It should work with red beets, too, as long as you don't mind an overall pink tendency to the dish.

My son Nick, who is doing all the cooking while home from college this summer, came up with a side dish/garnish that helps use up our garlic harvest. He calls it "Onions and Garlic in Honey Sauce."

1-2 tbsp olive or other cooking oil
1 med onion, chopped
About 10 cloves of garlic, halved
2-3 tbsp of honey
1/3 cup white wine
Cinnamon to taste

Heat a medium saucepan and add oil. Add onions and garlic and cook stirring occasionally for 5-7 minutes. Add honey, continue cooking 5 minutes. Add wine and let simmer until wine and honey are syrupy. Add cinnamon or other spices as desired.

Nick has also been trying to find new ways to prepare Swiss chard, since I keep bringing it home. We've had a number of dishes including the delicious Swiss Chard with Olives and Lemon. He also tried combining steamed chard with sauteed onions and the mint syrup I'd already made from our excess of mint (I've been putting it in tea, both hot and iced, and it has many other uses). We decided it was interesting but would be better with some vinegar added.

What new ways to serve up your harvest (or someone else's, if you have one of those neighbors who puts zucchini on your doorstep) have you found this summer?