Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Prepping in Winter




I view people who manage to put their gardens beautifully to bed for the winter with envy – and a little suspicion. I simply can’t believe anyone has that kind of time and energy in the fall. They must be slacking off in other areas -- the canning gets short shrift, they forget to bake for the school fundraiser, the closets are crammed with the moldering remnants of past lives or their desks are buried beneath an avalanche of paperwork.

At least I hope so; I not only fail to get fall cleanup done ‘on time,’ i.e. before the weeds scatter seed and the pests I’ve been dealing with have dug in for next year, I’m guilty of all those other things, too. I’d like to be Martha Stewart, but I’d need her staff and regular doses of Prozac to get there.

I do have a few legitimate excuses for not doing the end-of-season clear up. One is exhaustion coupled with the unforgiving deadlines of canning added to the other deadlines in life. Another is the habitat and fodder that the desiccated stalks and seed heads that wave over my untended garden offer wildlife. About 14 different bird species flit through it right now. But a big reason I wait is the pleasure I get from working outside on a beautiful winter day without the sense of urgency that the seasons often impose.

Boxing Day (December 26th) was mild and sunny. I’d been eying the overgrown raspberry patch for a while. The patch, comprised of several varieties each of black and red raspberries, is planted in a large U with a path down the middle. The black raspberries (Rubus occidentalis) originally occupied about eight feet on one side, but insist on reaching long, lethal-thorned tendrils to root in other sections. The red raspberries, comprised of both June-bearing varieties and so-called fall-bearing varieties, are less ambitious, so I have to keep after the blacks.

The blacks and some reds are June-bearers (floricanes, which produce fruit on one-year wood). They bear fruit early in summer, while the fall-bearing varieties (primocanes, which fruit on both one-year-old wood and on new green canes) will, if left to their own devices, produce twice a summer -- once around mid-June and a second time from late August to frost. Often the fall fruiting is more abundant than the early summer crop, which is why most people simply cut down the whole patch at the end of the season, allowing only new wood to spout up and produce the single end-of-summer fruiting. I don’t. The weather is squirrelly, (and I'm greedy) so I figure whenever those babies want to offer up fruit, I’ll gladly take it or offer it to friends.

Plus, the past two or three summers, the weather here has screwed the pooch for the fall crop. Mid-summer drought, despite drip irrigation, slowed cane growth and blossom production. Torrents in September encouraged fungus, which considerably diminished yield, so for the past couple of years, the early crop has been the more productive. Whatever, it works.

In addition to using them fresh, I make raspberry shrub, jam, raspberry cordial, raspberry vinegar, and freeze fresh berries like mad for winter pies and cakes and trifles. But by the time November rolls around, I’ve about had it with raspberries. The patch is overgrown and I have no ambition left to deal with it. Until now.

Monday in the late afternoon, I went out with the nippers in hand and cart in tow. Thick with timothy, the blowsy seed heads of spent wild aster, blackened mare’s tail, and the pathetic remains of the moonflower vine that grows up one northwest support, and a percentage of finished two-year-old canes, it looked doable in the allotted time frame between gorgeously slanting sun and twilight.

I yanked out the most egregious offenders including lots of rooted, lethal-thorned black raspberry whips and clipped the remaining canes to hip height. I left the invasive white mulberry saplings, which will need digging, for another day. The pace was delightfully contemplative. Twilight descended, and I trundled back in, delighted with having gardened.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Night of the radishes

Wikimedia Commons
Tonight in Oaxaca, Mexico is the celebration of Noche de R√°banos, the Night of the Radishes, in which the public square hosts an exhibition of figures carved from enormous radishes.  The radishes (I don't know the variety; does anyone?) are kept in the ground growing larger until just before the festival, when artists dig them up and create religious tableaux and village scenes, historical events and mythical tales.  (Tip of the hat to the Writer's Almanac for informing me of this charming custom.)

Season's greetings, everyone, and may your radishes be artistically-shaped!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Gardeners, rejoice!



Today, Thursday, December 22, has the shortest day and longest night of the year.  Yesterday, today, and tomorrow all have nine hours and 26 minutes of daylight, but today is one second shorter than yesterday, and tomorrow will be three seconds longer than today.  Soon daylight will be noticeably longer—and winter temperatures will bottom out and spring will be just a few weeks away.

Take a look around your landscape.  Are daffodil leaves starting to poke through your mulch?  Are buds on your maple and redbud trees beginning to swell?  Does that red flag on your mailbox mean you’re mailing your order for tomato, pepper, and chard seeds for next year's garden?

Gardeners are born optimists.  When days are short, temperatures plunge, and ice coats and snow needs to be shoveled, gardeners smile and plan March plantings of “cool weather veggies” and salivate at the mere thought of next August’s ripe Brandywine tomato.

Yes, spring is coming to your garden—soon!

To expand your weather knowledge, CLICK HERE to read the excellent explanation of the winter solstice by Justin Grieser of the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang.  He answers questions you and I haven’t even thought to ask.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Seed Catalog: R. H. Shumway’s Illustrated Garden Guide

Step right back, ladies and gentlemen, into the nineteenth century.  Turn the oversize pages of Shumway’s Illustrated Garden Guide slowly or you may miss the rattlesnakes you want to add to your 2012 garden.  This is the company’s 142nd year of seed selling.

Unlike most seed catalogs, Shumway’s is illustrated with line drawings in the style of a hundred years ago.  Sixteen of the catalog’s 64 pages are in color, but the rest are in stunning black and white.  Most of the color pages offer flowers and herbs, and all of the black-and-white pages offer fruits and vegetables.

If your dad—like mine—spoke of planting by the moon, don’t miss the great offer on the 2012  paperback edition of Moon Sign Book, “a popular astrological guide since … 1905 … complete tables and instructions on planting and harvesting … accurate and reliable.”  It’s the same moon, I suppose, but it now has some human footprints.

If you order the moon book, why not add the Tomato Holder?  I love the description:  “There are two sure ways to avoid cutting yourself when slicing tomatoes.  1.  Have someone else hold the tomato.  2.  Use this tomato holder.  Gives you a firm, safe grip, and knife slots measure perfect slices every time.  Great invention!  Aluminum.”  If you tend to amputate fingers while slicing tomatoes, hey, cut your losses and order a Tomato Holder.

The corn pages contain varieties I’ve seen in no other catalog—Bonus Hybrid ‘Baby Corn’ that produces those miniature ears you find in salads and exotic foods and Goliath Silo or Ensilage Seed Corn, which grows to 15 feet and yields up to 50 tons per acre.  Your cows will be delighted if you cut, chop, and ferment it in your silo for their winter feedings.

And for violence-prone gardeners who are sick and tired of burrowing mammals, there’s the four-pack Revenge Rodent Smoke Bomb to toss into those burrows … “safe [for the quarterback, not the receiver] and easy-to-use … absolutely guaranteed.”  Many years ago I tossed something like that into a groundhog burrow under one of the huge tulip poplars at the edge of our woods.  Apparently there was an interception because the next morning I found the bomb about three feet outside the burrow entrance.  Groundhog 1, Bob 0.

I haven’t ordered from Shumway’s recently, but I’m going to order a moon book, maybe some rutabaga seeds (I seldom see them on seed racks locally), and maybe a rattlesnake or two.  The reptiles, of course, would be Georgia Rattlesnake Watermelon and Rattlesnake Climbing Bean.  Second, thought, our little plots on our hillside don’t have room for such wide-ranging veggie critters.

Prices are reasonable:  Celebrity Hybrid (30 seeds), $2.75; Juliet Hybrid, not available; Better Boy Hybrid (30), $2.45; Brandywine Pink (30), $2.10; postage/handling, $6.00 on orders up to $30.

To take a look at Shumway’s catalog, CLICK HERE.  Unfortunately, veggie illustrations online are mostly color photographs, which makes the Internet edition colorless, as far as I’m concerned.  If you want to see the “real” Shumway’s catalog, go online and order a print copy.

Additional Recommendations from Readers

Anne posted a Comment after my last catalog review posting:  “My favorite home garden seed catalog is Pinetree Garden Seeds.  They sell nearly everything you might want to try, the quantities are small and prices are very reasonable.  So instead of agonizing over which variety to get, I can go ahead and get several kinds, often for less than a dollar a packet and just enough seeds for a season or two.”  To take a look at Pinetree Garden Seeds online, CHECK HERE.

Kent recommended Meyer Seed Co. of Baltimore:  “You can find Meyer Seed on the web and order a catalog.  They carry most of the varieties recommended by the University of Maryland.  Their prices are pretty good compared to a lot of the mail order companies.”  To check out Meyer Seed Co., CLICK HERE.

Notes:  (1) You can order a print catalog through most of the catalog websites.  (2) Mention of specific products, brands, or companies is not intended as an endorsement by the University of Maryland.  (3) I do not receive consideration of any kind for mentioning products, brands, or companies in my postings.  The seed catalogs I review are those from sellers from which I have previously bought seeds.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Seed Catalog: Seed Savers Exchange

“Most beautiful” is the phrase that pops into my mind when I think about the Seed Savers Exchange catalog. 

Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization with a mission—to save our diverse but endangered garden heritage by building a network of people committed to collecting, conserving, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants and educating people about the value of genetic and cultural diversity.  Sales of seed packets help fund that mission.

The Exchange sells the kind of open-pollinated or heirloom vegetable and flower varieties that our grandparents and great-grandparents planted and saved because the open-pollinated varieties grew with the same characteristics from year to year.

Access to the Exchange’s catalog, both print and online editions, is free.  You can also become a member (I am one) and receive an inch-thick Yearbook of thousands of open-pollinated seed varieties grown, saved, and made available by gardeners across North America.

Every year the catalog features several new varieties.  Two this year are White Vienna Kohlrabi, a pre-1860 variety, and Georgia Southern Collard, which dates to about 1880.  Ok, maybe they are the kinds of vegetables your great-great-great grandparents grew.

The vegetable section takes up nearly 70 of the catalog’s 100 pages and is followed by sections of heirloom herbs and flowers.  Most veggie offerings take up two or three pages, but tomatoes have eight pages, from Amish Paste to Crnkovic Yugoslavian, from Green Sausage to Hillbilly Potato Leaf, and from Jaune Flamme to Speckled Roman and Wapsipinicon Peach.

I think you should get an honorary B.H.G.H. (Bachelor of Horticulture in Garden History) if you read the seed descriptions.  For example, the annotation for Red Fig tomato states, “Philadelphia heirloom documented to 1805.  Heavy yields of 1½” pear-shaped fruits that are great for fresh eating.  Used as a substitute for figs years ago by gardeners who would pack away crates of dried tomatoes for winter use.”  Maybe that information will help you in a game of Trivial Pursuit some winter evening.

Since the Exchange doesn’t sell hybrid seeds, I cannot compare most of the prices I’ve listed in other catalog reviews.  The only one of the tomatoes available is Brandywine (Sudduth’s Strain) (50 seeds), $2.75.  Postage/handling is $3.00 on purchases less than $10. 

If you wish to check out the online catalog, CLICK HERE.

Additional Recommendations from Readers

Two readers have sent personal catalog recommendations after reading my earlier catalog postings. 

“TankMan” recommended that readers interested in hot peppers should check out Pepper Joe’s website, which sells seeds for, among scores of other fiery varieties, the Ghost Pepper, also known as Bhut Jolokia or Naga, and at 970,000 Scoville Units (11 on Pepper Joe’s 10-point scale) is billed as the “hottest pepper in the word.”  To check out Pepper Joe’s, CLICK HERE.

Another reader recommended that anyone seriously interested in beans should check out the 11-page bean section of the Vermont Bean Seed Company catalog, which contains more than 40 additional pages covering other vegetables, herbs, fruits, and flowers.  To check out Vermont Bean, CLICK HERE.

Notes:  (1) You can order a print catalog through most of the catalog websites.  (2) Mention of specific products, brands, or companies is not intended as an endorsement by the University of Maryland.  (3) I do not receive consideration of any kind for mentioning products, brands, or companies in my postings.  The seed catalogs I review are those of sellers from which I have previously bought seeds.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Seed Catalog: Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Johnny’s catalog is designed for two different types of food growers—backyard and commercial or market.  Because of that, this catalog contains varieties and comments that you won’t find in most other catalogs.  For example, in the “Greenhouse” subsection of eight pages of tomato seeds, you’ll see “Rebelski aka DRW 7749 (F1) … The Best greenhouse tomato for fresh market.”

Johnny’s 206-page catalog—which is perfect bound like a small book—contains a wealth of information that serious gardeners can mine to improve their wisdom and skills.  Before each vegetable category appears a column labeled “Growing Information.”  The one about tomatoes has 16 entries: determinate and indeterminate (definitions); growing seedlings; transplanting outdoors; fertilizer; diseases; blossom end rot; insect pests; harvest; storage; days to maturity; seeds to plants ratio; average planting rate, seed specs; packet (number of seeds); and germination chart showing optimum temperature range.

Scattered through the catalog are other charts—some of primary interest to market growers but containing all sorts of information that can give a backyard gardener perspective—and appreciation of the knowledge required to successfully produce vegetables sold at farmers’ markets or grocery stores.  One page gives “Seasonal Salad Ideas for Your Markets.”  Another page contains “Glossary of Terms,” “Life Cycle Codes,” “Vegetable Disease Codes,” and “Hardiness Zone Chart.”

The catalog also has large sections of herbs (20 pages) and flowers (36 pages).  Johnny’s encourages commercial growers to diversify to meet the changing interests of buyers—and you’ll likely see the result when you check out offerings during your next visit to your local farmers’ market.

I’m utterly fascinated—as you can tell—by all the information in this catalog but even more so by its “Tools and Supplies” section.  Many of the offerings are designed for commercial growers, such as a precision seeder that holds 7.3 quarts of pea, corn, or bean seeds.  If you’re hankering for a broadfork, Johnny’s has three sizes for tilling and one for harvesting.  I had never heard of broadforks until I saw them here.

Finally, I want to yell, “Bingo!” because one page lists four long-handled, high-quality weeding hoes: a 4-inch wire weeder, a 3¾-inch collinear hoe, a 5-inch trapezoid hoe with replaceable blade, and a 3¼-inch stirrup hoe.   Hoe, hoe, hoe, hoe—maybe you should give a hint to someone you know who is dying to give you a super-special gift.

I’ve bought seeds from this company.  Prices are reasonable: Celebrity Hybrid (40 seeds), $3.45; Juliet Hybrid (15), $3.45; Better Boy Hybrid, not available; Brandywine (40), $3.45; postage/handling, $7.25 on orders from $10.01 to $30.  I also like the idea that it’s an employee-owned company.

If you wish to check out the online catalog, CLICK HERE.

And while you’re spying out Johnny’s website, check out the Video section.  Want to see how to use a collinear hoe?  Watch the video.  Want to know how to use a row cover?  Watch the video.  The video list is long, but, hey, it’s winter and evenings are long.

Notes:  (1) You can order a print catalog through most of the catalog websites.  (2) Mention of specific products, brands, or companies is not intended as an endorsement by the University of Maryland.  (3) I do not receive consideration of any kind for mentioning products, brands, or companies in my postings.  The seed catalogs I review are those that have arrived in our mailbox unsolicited.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Seed Catalog: Totally Tomatoes

When is “totally tomatoes” not “totally tomatoes”?

When Totally Tomatoes is a seed catalog.  The company’s 60-page 2012 catalog has more than 30 pages of tomato seeds followed by nearly 15 pages of pepper seeds and more on other vegetables. 

The hundreds of varieties of tomato seeds are divided into categories, such as giants, large hybrids, medium to large, rainbow, mountain (especially for the Southeast and mountain areas), open-pollinated and heirloom, and cherry.  If I see a trend, it’s the addition of new, “short” varieties for container gardeners.

If you’re a new gardener, you should check out your tomato-growing knowledge at the catalog’s two-page how-to-do-it guide, “These Simple Steps Yield Totally Terrific Tomatoes,” which covers seeding, growing plants, hardening off, site preparation, transplanting, culture, disease and pests, container gardening, and preserving.

I have ordered seeds from this company for several years.  Prices are reasonable (I plan to compare prices as I review catalogs):  Celebrity Hybrid (30 seeds), $2.75; Juliet Hybrid (20), $2.45; Better Boy Hybrid (30), $2.45; Brandywine Pink (30), $2.10; postage/handling, $4.95 on orders less than $25.

If you wish to check out the online catalog, CLICK HERE.

Notes:  (1) You can order a print catalog through most of the catalog websites.  (2) Mention of specific products, brands, or companies is not intended as an endorsement by the University of Maryland.  (3) I do not receive consideration of any kind for mentioning products, brands, or companies in my postings.  The seed catalogs I review are those that have arrived in our mailbox unsolicited.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Tomato Patch: Tomato plants for holiday decorating

Ready for the mantle?
Veggie growers will have to admit the University of New Hampshire has come up with a brilliant idea: Tomato plants as holiday decorations and gifts.

This tomato grower is smiling from ear to ear, and beyond, after reading today’s Associated Press story about the university’s experiment with dwarf tomato plants—deep green leaves and bright red fruit—for Christmas decorating and gift giving.

The idea has gotten rave reviews from people who’ve checked out the plants.

What fun!  Just walk over to the holiday plant on the mantle, pluck a juicy fruit, and munch away.  Can’t do that with the decorations on a Christmas tree!

Why not this?
What next—pots of rhubarb chard?

Hoe, hoe, hoe.

Smile.

To read more—including the names of tomato varieties used in the experiment—CLICK HERE.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Cutting lettuce in December

Simpsons Curled (left) and Red Sails lettuce
cut December 2


We’ve had many hard frosts during the last few weeks.  One morning the temperature was 27°F at dawn.  Many mornings our lawn is frosty white.  What am I harvesting from the outdoor freezer?

“Bob, we’re out of lettuce.  Do you still have some in the garden?”  Ellen recently asked.

I went to the garden and brought in the last of the lettuce I had planted in September in the experimental greenhouse or lettuce box—the one I called a “greenhouseperhaps” in an earlier posting—a bright-green Simpsons Curled plant and a Red Sails.  After I washed both lettuces, I stored them in a large plastic bag in our refrigerator between sandwiches and salads.

We’ve had such a warm fall that in early November I removed the box from around the lettuce and moved it to another location to protect three just-sprouted Red Sails plants, which continue to grow slowly.  This is a first-time experiment to see how long lettuce can continue growing as late-fall temperatures work their way down the thermometer.  Will some super-cold night soon kill the young plants?  Or will I pick lettuce at Christmas or New Year’s—or beyond?

Red Sails seedlings in "greenhouseperhaps"
in early December
What have I learned so far from this experiment?

First, with a little thought and care, I can pick lettuce—often called a “cool weather” vegetable—during most of the year if I plant small, successive crops every two to four weeks.  If I plant seeds in mid-March, I can begin picking small leaves as I thin the plants in April.  From May through November I can pick beautiful, mature plants.  Photo 1 shows the two beauties I picked even later, on December 2.

Second, my small greenhouse experiment quickly taught me that “short” lettuce will grow best in the box’s limited height.  Simpsons Curled and Red Sails top out at a foot or more, taller than the box.  When their leaves touch the top (lid) of the box, where moisture collects and freezes on frosty nights, ice crystals sometimes encase and damage the tallest lettuce leaves.  This winter I must buy a packet of seeds of some “short” head or leaf lettuce that will grow in the box without pressing against the icy top.

Third, the “greenhouseperhaps” is small, so the number of plants that can grow without overcrowding is limited.  For my first crop I transplanted 10 times too many plants and seeds in the box—a row of Simpsons Curled plants and a row of Red Sails seeds.  Within a few weeks the Simpsons Curled covered the Red Sails sprouts, which struggled in the deep shade.  My second attempt (Photo 2) has just three Red Sails seedlings, which I started in our sunroom in yoghurt cups and then transplanted.

Will I pick lettuce at year end—or even in January?  I’ll let you know what happens as increasingly cold weather impacts on the three Red Sails lettuce plants growing in the mini-greenhouse.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The roots of the garden

This is the first of my planned posts on successful crops I'm going to revisit in the demo garden next year.  I thought I'd start with what seems fundamental: root crops.

They're successful because, for the most part, they are easy; although, as Bob's last post showed, they can have pests, both below ground and above.  However, given good soil, plenty of water and some attention, they usually thrive.

We will certainly be growing potatoes and sweet potatoes, but I won't discuss those here.  Nor will I mention root crops I've struggled with, like parsnips.  Which of this category of plants will I definitely be growing?  Beets, carrots, turnips, onions, radishes, and (the odd one out) celeriac.

Beets are one of my favorite vegetables... okay, I know, some of you don't like beets.  I suspect that this is mostly because of what happens to them when they're canned, so please do try them fresh; you're allowed to still not like them afterwards!  I will eat your share.  They're tasty and easy to grow: you need a nice loose soil with good fertility, and you need to water them, but they have few pest problems (except rabbits and the like) so usually the greens end up looking good enough to eat - and please do!  The varieties I have most fun with are Bull's Blood (for the spectacular deep red leaves as well as the roots), Chioggia (for the bull's eye red-and-white striped interior), and golden (Burpee's Golden and others) as shown above.  These have a nice mild flavor and the advantage of not staining everything in their vicinity pink.

Carrots are a bit more of a challenge to grow, but I've had great success at the demo garden with them, probably because of our great soil.  Carrots need deep, loose soil - not the clay we generally have around here before adding amendments - but at the same time you don't want to overdo the fertility, because too much nitrogen causes the roots to grow lots of hairs, or even to do this -->

I had great luck with Cosmic Purple carrots this year - I forgot to harvest them from a spring sowing until mid-July, and they were still tender and delicious, plus they look beautiful with purple skin over an orange and yellow core - so I will probably do those again, and maybe some other colors too.  I may also try a row of little round Paris Market-type carrots in a salad table.  The round kinds are good for gardeners who have not yet achieved the perfect soil.  Try amending with coarse sand as well as peat moss or coir and not too much compost to fix your soil for longer carrot-shaped carrots.

One curious incident in the world of carrots happened to me this year: a flower.  Carrots are biennials; they'd prefer to grow leaves and tasty roots in their first year from sowing, and flowers and seeds in the second year.  We usually interrupt this cycle by harvesting the plant to eat, but if you are planning to save seed from carrots, you need to let them winter over and bolt up into flower the next spring.  This carrot decided, in July, that it had already had a winter's rest, and needed to make seeds right away.  I'm sorry to say I didn't let it get that far (I needed to plant something else there) but I did leave the flower for a while to bemuse gardeners and provide tiny insects with a drink of nectar.

Carrots can also be planted in the late summer/early fall for fall or winter harvesting.  Mm.

Turnips have a few root pests and also get hit in the leaves by harlequin bugs, cabbage loopers, and other Brassicaceae pests, so whether planting in spring or fall I usually start them under row cover and keep them there until they get too tall.  Turnip greens are great for adding bitterness to a saute of mixed greens, but it's tough to keep them looking good while growing organically.  I have only grown Purple-Top White Globe, which is a reliable standard, but I'd like to branch out into some of the little white or red-skinned types.

There's a whole world of onions out there to try.  I plan to grow a lot of them throughout the garden next year, mostly started from sets (because they are easy) but I'll also do some smaller ones from seed (Cipollini onions, cute little flattened disks, can be started right in the ground in spring for summer harvest).  Onions can have pests, but I have never had a serious problem with them (aside from the occasional rotted one) and I know the rich soil in the demo garden treats them well.

Let's grow radishes in every color - yellow and black as well as the more common pink, red, purple and white.  Fast and easy and a great addition to salads or (especially the longer Daikon radishes) to stir-fries.  The leaves can go into that sauteed mixed greens dish - spicy!  Brassicaceae pests do damage the leaves, but harvest comes so quickly it usually doesn't matter much.

Celeriac is pretty much the opposite - it needs a place in the garden to mature over a long season, but I'll give it one because it's such a rewarding plant and the leaves are just as edible as the roots.

And that concludes my tour of root vegetables you'll (most likely) see in our demo garden next year!  Don't forget that you can learn more about growing most of these crops (we seem to have left out celeriac, so far) at the Vegetable Profiles link on the Grow It Eat It website.

Root crops are magical and fun and good additions to your menu as well as your garden!  Try some!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Sherlock Gardener: Case of the hollow turnips

My discovery: Hollow turnip
How disappointing!  The leaves of my fall crop of Golden Globe turnips (Burpee Organic) were nearly picture perfect, but when I pulled some before Thanksgiving, they had underdeveloped roots.  When I cut off the stems and the tips of their taproots, I made an unusual discovery: The turnips were hollow.

What gives?  Bad lot of seeds?  Wacky growth because of our extra foot of rain this year?  Insect damage? 

I searched the Internet for information about “hollow turnips” and didn’t find much.  Several sites talked about a variety of pests that attack turnip leaves or roots from the outside—but I found no descriptions or photographs of huge cavities caused by disease or pests.  Several sites mentioned that turnips and rutabagas sometimes have hollows because of a boron deficiency of the soil, a problem often linked to repeated turnip crops in the same area, but that wasn’t the case here.

My second investigation
It was time for some expert consultation.  I fired off email queries to Burpee and to the Maryland University Extension Home & Garden Information Center. 

HGIC replied first: The hollowed turnips might be caused by a boron deficiency, and I might want to water down next year’s turnip patch with a weak boron solution, but there are other possible environmental factors….

Burpee also replied quickly.  Yes, boron deficiency is a possibility, but….

On Tuesday a downpour short-circuited my landscaping project, and I decided to pull more turnips and to look more closely at the problem.  I pulled four.  Three were underdeveloped and hollow.  The fourth was almost a perfect three-inch globe.

I shook most of the soil off the four turnips, cleaned them a bit more by rolling them in puddles on our driveway asphalt, and took them to our kitchen sink, where I cut them open while giving them a final rinse.

Traffic report: Sluggish, just inching along
Hey, what was that washing into the In-Sink-Erator—a piece of mulch—or a small slug?  Unfortunately I didn’t react in time to grab and examine whatever it was.  After taking photos of the hollow turnips, I again searched for anything online about slugs stunting and hollowing out turnips—and found nothing, even in sites from Great Britain and New Zealand, apparently slug capitals of the world because of their slug-friendly climates.

I fired off an update to HGIC with my suspicion that slugs might be the culprits, noting that in the most recent photo, which shows the three hollow turnips with their tops up in the picture, there’s sort of an entry way from the top of the turnip into the root cavity.

Having second thoughts about a slug in our kitchen sink, I went to the kitchen to clean up a bit more.  When I lifted the sink mat—there it was—a living, crawling slug.  The next morning I found a second inch-long slug crawling up the side of the sink, apparently after overnighting in the In-Sink-Erator.

 Next morning: Slug 2
Mystery solved—in my opinion.  Newly hatched slugs most likely ate their way from the crowns of the plants into the roots and hollowed them as they dined on the softer flesh.  Maryland slugs must be super smart if they can find such nearly perfect places—inside my turnips—to live, eat, and grow.

Hindsight says I shouldn’t be surprised.  I planted the turnips next to river-stone mulch along the side of our detached garage and just across the sidewalk from a large bed of sedums—both excellent slug habitats.

If your turnip crop yields stunted, hollow turnips, consider the possibilities—unusual weather—a soil deficiency—insect predators—but don’t overlook the possibility that slugs have found and adopted your turnip roots as near perfect places to live.   And remember to remove all slugs from the kitchen sink before U-Know-Who sees them. 

If I plant turnips next year, I plan to locate them far from favored slug habitats and, for good measure, occasionally sprinkle iron sulfate slug-bait pellets, such as “Slug Magic,” “Sluggo,” and “Escar-Go!,” in the turnip patch.

The thinking season; and whither stink bugs?

In theory I am all in favor of year-round gardening, using season-extension techniques to produce food even in the dead of winter, and probably I will do more toward that goal in the future, but... it's nice to have a rest, too, and to be able to sit back and plan next year's garden without having it merge into this year's.

We put the Derwood Demo Garden to bed in November.  There are still a few miscellaneous greens growing there, including in a cold frame, and I will be stopping back on occasion to check on them and harvest.  But really it's planning time: the thinking season.  My goal for the garden next year is two-fold: first, we've formed small teams to address the problems we've had recently with particular crops (tomatoes, beans, squash, cucumbers and melons) and try to get good yields out of them next year.  Second, in the spaces between I'm going to feature plants that have done very well in recent years.  In upcoming posts, I'll show you some of those plants.

On a sort-of-related topic: one of the crop problems that we need to address is damage caused by brown marmorated stink bugs.  They were devastating in the demo garden this year, and pretty bad in my home garden, and all over my house last winter.  I've talked to gardeners across the state who had varying experiences with them, from none at all to so many they felt like throwing in the trowel.  But - and I say this with caution, because I'm sure I'm jinxing myself - after a brief and mild home invasion in September, I've seen very few of them indoors this year.  The same thing was true last fall - saw lots early on and then they disappeared - but they came back as soon as it got cold, I assume migrating down from the attic, and so far the recent cooler spell after our long warm fall has not brought a bug-flux.  I've only seen two in the last week (admittedly, one of them was resting on a tissue I used to blow my nose, so that wasn't pleasant) and I'm hoping that will be the rate they appear at all winter.  Fingers crossed.  We also saw close to none in the shed at the demo garden during fall clean-up, and last year they were everywhere.

How about you, Maryland gardeners?  What's your inside stink bug count this fall?  How bad were they in your gardens?  What about next year; any predictions?