Friday, June 29, 2012

A variety of sweet potatoes


I love growing sweet potatoes. They're easy and delicious, but they do take up space, and I don't have room for many plants.  Unfortunately, the slips are usually sold in bunches of 12 or more, which in the past has led me to either squeeze more plants in a bed than will comfortably fit, or to follow people around asking wouldn't they like a slip or two.

This year I discovered that Southern Exposure Seed Exchange sells single-type or mixed sweet potato slips in groups of six - not as good a deal per plant, of course, but it does stop me constantly informing my friends that actually sweet potatoes make a lovely annual ground cover, and that you can grow them in containers, and the leaves are edible and nutritious, and really you don't need that extra squash, you want a sweet potato instead.  I ordered the purple, orange and white set, and received six very healthy slips (frequently they look like they're about to expire, although they often revive on planting), two each of All Purple, Ginseng, and North Carolina White.

This one is Ginseng, which will produce orange-fleshed tubers.  Each of the three has different-shaped leaves; this one reminds me of the ornamental sweet potato vine 'Blackie,' which I don't have a picture of (you can find them online).

The ornamental sweet potato vine I'm growing (in window boxes with petunias and lantana) is 'Marguerite,' which has leaves more like the sweet potatoes I'm used to (such as 'Georgia Jet,' which we always grow at the demo garden)..

"Ornamental sweet potato vine" is to be taken literally, by the way.  They are ornamental, but they are also sweet potatoes, with edible tubers (I wrote about eating them here).  I wouldn't grow them for the tubers, or for the edible leaves either, because they are bred for beauty not taste, but if you are growing them to jazz up your ornamental beds, it's worth cooking them when you dig them up.

As for the six plants in my vegetable garden, I'm hoping for tasty results!  I don't think I've ever eaten a purple sweet potato, so that will be an interesting experience.  I'll share pictures, of course.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Year of Leafy Greens: Vegetables out, weeds in?

Purslane: Leafy Green of the Year?

The University of Maryland Extension’s Grow It Eat It Action Team has designated 2012 as the Year of Leafy Greens, and I propose we celebrate by replacing our vegetable gardens with weed gardens.

That surprising idea came to me while I was hoeing weeds near our green beans earlier this week.  “Those weeds weren’t there just two days ago—and they’re an inch and a half tall already,” I muttered to myself.

I was particularly irritated at the purslane that seemed to be sprouting everywhere.  You know—common purslane—Portulaca oleracea—see photo—with its “succulent stems and leaves,” as the book “Weeds of the Northeast” describes them, that are almost impossible to kill.  Hoe them and step on them, and they reroot.  Hoe them and let a shower or a heavy dew dampen them, and they reroot.  Hoe them in late afternoon, and they all but rerooted overnight.

“Succulent,” of course, has several meanings, and I found definitions supporting my eat-weeds theory: “delectable” or “pleasing to the taste.”

Taste, I wondered?  A quick Internet search gave me a quick education about purslane as food.  It tastes like spinach, sort of “nutty but tangy,” according to one fan.  I think the best adjective is “sour.”

Purslane’s been grown for food in Asian countries for centuries, and it’s rich in vitamins, fatty acids, minerals, even amino acids.  Connoisseurs blenderize it into green smoothies.

Multiple sources offer purslane seeds for sale, including Johnny’s Selected Seeds, one of my favorite companies, which offers Gruner Red Purslane and Goldberg Golden Purslane.  Packets cost $3.45 for 500 seeds—and 25 pounds of Goldberg Golden Purslane seeds will set you back $5,725. 

Johnny’s says purslane blooms or matures in 50 days, which seems a bit slow to me because the volunteers in my veggie gardens seem to sprout, grow, and flower in 50 hours—or so it seems when the thermometer registers in the 90s and the humidity makes hoeing a dripping chore.

You’ll find pages of recipes online if you search “purslane recipes.”  How does “Tomato, Cucumber, & Purslane Salad” sound to you?  Or “Pickled Purslane?”  Or “Ham & Purslane on Rye?” One site advises use of only young leaves and warns that overcooking tends to make it “slimy.”  The French savor a soup called Bonne Femme, which is based on equal amounts of purslane and sorrel and which, I hope, isn’t overcooked.

Back-to-the-land enthusiasts probably embrace purslane too, as it was a popular edible and medical in the 16th Century.  The English then made a salad of purslane, basil, cress, rocket, and garlic to cure the common cold. A remedy for ridding kids of worms called for purslane seeds boiled in wine.  I hope that concoction didn’t rid the worms of the kids.

So why am I pampering 24 tomato plants and hand weeding neat rows of green beans, beets, carrots, and lettuce?  Shouldn’t I abandon traditional gardening and let the weeds take over?  I have no doubt that purslane will win any battle for dominance.

And a timely thought: Since purslane is a leafy green, I nominate it as the Grow It Eat It “Leafy Green of the Year.”

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Tomato Patch: Is that a sucker or a fruiting branch?

Know what you're pinching
How can you tell the difference between a tomato plant’s sucker and a fruiting branch when they’re both just beginning to grow?

If you don’t pinch suckers, I suppose you don’t have to worry about the difference.  You just let everything grow.  But if you want to pinch suckers—I explained in an earlier posting why you might want to do that—you certainly don’t want to prune off the fruiting branches by mistake.  If you do, you’re removing future tomatoes.

Most information about suckers mentions that they grow at the junction of a main stem and a leaf.  That junction is called the “axil.” 

But don’t fruiting branches grow from axils too?  No, fruiting branches grow from the main stem, not at the intersection of Main Stem Street and Leaf Avenue.  So when you’re removing suckers, make sure you’re removing new growth at an axil.

If the new growth is just beginning and you’re just not sure if it’s a new fruiting branch or a new sucker, let it continue growing for a few days.  A fruiting branch soon will display its buds and then blossoms.  A sucker, by contrast, continues growing as a potential new main stem with new leaves and eventually fruiting branches also.

The first photo shows a fruiting branch and a sucker on an Amish Paste tomato plant in the Tomato Patch this morning.  Note the fruiting branch growing from the main stem and the sucker growing from the axil.

My mistake: Roma plant without
a main stem
Do I ever make a mistake when I’m pinching suckers?  Am I human?  I haven’t pinched a fruiting branch this year—yet.  I’ve done worse.  Somehow I managed to pinch the main stem of a Roma tomato.  Now, several weeks later as you can see in the second photo, I seem to have created an 18-inch high tomato shrub that apparently will remain forever fruitless.

If you want to read my more detailed posting about removing suckers, “Tomato Patch: Pinch that sucker?” (June 20, 2011), CLICK HERE.



Shadow-portrait: Ancient Gardener in straw hat









Sunday, June 24, 2012

Tomato Patch: Stan picks his first big red

Stan's June 21 prize
Stan Purwin, community gardener in Columbia, Maryland, sent me news on Thursday (June 21) that he had picked a Better Boy tomato and that it had “made a terrific BLT.”

I posted last year about how Stan uses plant protectors to encourage early spring growth of his tomatoes—and how he usually picks his first big-red tomatoes around July 4.  This year he picked his first big red 17 days before the Fourth.

“I purchased 6-inch Better Boy plants in 4-inch pots at Home Depot and set them out about May 10th with Walls O’ Water,” Stan explained. “I used fabric mulch because it was handy but think black plastic would have worked better. I probably could have harvested it on the 15th of June but I was at the beach.”

Why did he pick nearly three weeks earlier this year?  “I think the exceptionally warm spring gave them a good start this year, and I did take the time to fill the Wall O’ Water cells with water, which absorbs heat during the day and radiates it all night,” Stan said.  “If only I can keep the early blight at bay, I should have a good season.”

To read my earlier posting (May 31, 2011) showing Stan and his plant protectors, CLICK HERE.

If want to see a tomato plant with “early blight” and to read additional information about the problem from the University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center, CLICK HERE.

Stan's pre-BLT Better Boy,
June 21, 2012

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Bean harvest!

Here's a late report on this week's Tuesday harvest at the Derwood Demo Garden.  You may recall, though I haven't talked about it in a while, that this year's vegetable team is working on solutions to some of our pest and climate problems in common vegetables.  Darlene Nicholson is the Master Gardener in charge of bush beans, and one of the types she planted is Provider.  This bean provides (ha) an early harvest, because it is cold-tolerant and will germinate in cool soil.

Darlene's April planting of Provider is now yielding beans in large numbers.  In the photo, MG Carol Pihlstrom is in the middle of harvesting the two short rows.  Combined with Darlene's harvest of a few days earlier, we got five gallons of beans.  Those are some prolific plants.  Two thumbs up for Provider.

Keep your fingers crossed, but the garden is remarkably free of insect pests so far.  We do have some cucumber beetles and flea beetles, but hardly any potato beetles, and we've so far spotted (and squished) only one adult squash bug.  There were two sightings of a brown marmorated stink bug on Tuesday.  It may possibly have been the same bug.

Aside from beans, we made what may be the last harvest of kale, mustard, and lettuce (considering this week's weather, I expect to see bolting plants at my next visit), and also cut a large amount of Swiss chard.  A few zucchini and peppers were ready, and there should be a lot more soon.  In addition:

Lots of enormous onions!  These went in as plants in mid-March.

Some pretty serious rocambole garlic, which was planted last October.

I'll give you updates on some of our other plantings soon.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The future of my vegetable garden

This is a decision year for my vegetable garden.  (Well, really for me.  I hate to think what my garden would choose if it could decide for itself.  Rampant mint and lemon balm, probably.)

I wrote a post recently in my personal garden blog about how, as compared to the Derwood Demo Garden, my landscape of out-of-control weeds is like the Garden of Dorian Gray, except not so much stuck in a closet.  The vegetable garden was a particularly shameful part of the general mess.  I've done a little work on it since, but it's still not something I'd show off.  What can I say: my soil is fertile, and the weeds take advantage if I look away for too long.

Now, there are some intellectual (and even horticultural) advantages to neglect.  If you ever wanted to know what cutting celery looks like when it survives over the winter and goes to flower the next spring, here you are.  We pulled out the celery plants in the demo garden ages ago; at home, not so much.  Actually, since I have nothing else to go into the corner this is occupying, I just pruned back the branches lying across the bed, and left the rest.  These umbelliferous flowers are great for attracting beneficial insects, like tiny parasitic wasps.

General distraction and laziness isn't the reason for making a decision about the garden now, however.  I might reform.  The first of the real reasons is that about half the garden is now in shade for a good part of the day (trees! Who knew they grew?).  There are vegetables that will grow in part-shade, but dedicating beds to lettuce and half-strength leafy greens doesn't help with a) crop rotation, and b) summer.

The reason I need to decide this year is that my six- or seven-year-old raised beds, made of untreated pine coated with linseed oil, and metal corner pieces, are finally falling apart.  (I usually advise people to go for untreated pine unless they are very sure they want the beds in that place forever.  And frankly, plastic disintegrates eventually and cedar doesn't last as long as it should given the price.)  I should have replaced the beds before planting, obviously, but this gives me a season to make up my mind.

So, what to do?  We've put a lot of effort into the fence, but after expanding the garden three years ago I've never managed to develop the back half of it properly.  I do have tomatoes in raised beds back there now, but they are a pain to get to with the black raspberries taking over the middle section of the garden.  I'm fond of the trees that are casting shade on my vegetables.  There's nowhere else on our half acre where we can surround a sufficiently sunny area with a fence, and we very much need the fence.

Perhaps the best solution will be to apply for a community garden plot for next year, and grow fruit in the fenced area (currants in the part-shade?), after subduing the weeds.  I'll let you know what I decide.

Anyone else facing decisions about edible garden plots due to changing conditions?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Tomato Patch: Solving my living-mulch problem

My living-mulch problem
I showed you in a recent posting about the living-mulch problem in the Tomato Patch—thousands of seeds that had sprouted after I put down straw mulch.  I asked readers to send suggestions for solving the problem.  Let me tell you about their recommendations (edited for blog length) and then explain what I did.

Pat F.: “I would cover the bed with black plastic. … You can put tiny pin holes and the weeds will get no sunlight and die enriching the soil. The plastic can be secured by metal U-pins.”

Kent P:  “Just cut it off at ground level with a weed-whacker, and it should die. Hopefully there’s no quack grass or Johnson grass seed mixed in with the annual grass.”

West Virginia J:  “Tackle it with your hands and on yer knees.”

Cape Cod weeder, tool of choice
Troy, who likes this “great experiment in intercropping,” sent four suggestions from California: “1. Mow the ‘grass’—don’t pull it.  2.  For easier ‘weeding,’ pull the tomatoes and harvest the grain.  3.  Lay down cardboard mulch over the grain and remove after kill.  4.  Drip-irrigate tomatoes, and give no water to grain.  This might work here in California, but probably not on East Coast.”

Yung: “There is a product called cocoa-shell mulch. The shells come off the bean during roasting and air dry therefore insuring a weed-free mulch. It seems like a great organic product that would eliminate your problem for the next growing season, but not this year. Maybe you can smother the weed by placing heavy-duty plastic over the area.”

James: “Treat the wheat as a free living mulch/cover crop. Allow the wheat to grow to a taller stalk, and chop it off at ground level, and leave the new mulch lying on top of your straw. It will dry and continue mulching your tomatoes. …  And if it re-grows, repeat the chop and drop. … The grain plants will die at the frost, and your problem will be solved. For next year, along with newspapers, use clean cardboard for your ground layer, and any of the grain plants that survived the winter won't be able to grow through the cardboard.”

Siah, from Australia: “Hmm, are you sure that its wheat/barley cos in our garden we had the same thing or at least looks like it and it turned out to be grass.  We just let it grow till we had time to pull it out.”

Weed/straw mix drying in windrow
Ria M.: “Rake out as much of the straw as you can from this area. Put a single layer of cardboard over the grass/wheat/barley to smother it. Put the straw over the cardboard and water to keep cardboard from blowing away in the breeze.”

Major recommendations, then, were to pull it, cut it, or smother it.

Here’s what I did.

Step 1:  I decided not to cut the weeds.  Kent P. mentioned the possibility that some of the weeds were not grain but invasive grasses, and I had noticed that some young weeds didn’t look like grain seedlings, so I wanted to be sure to kill them. 

Step 2:  I started pulling the weeds but quickly saw the manual approach resulted in lots of roots staying in the soil with great potential for resprouting.  I then switched from hand to my Cape Cod weeder to easily uproot the thickly growing weeds and to knock most of the soil off their roots.  In the process I tried to pull out most of the straw mulch, but it was so intertwined with the weeds that I tried to cure the mix by putting most of it in a windrow on an adjacent sidewalk, hoping the heat and sun would kill the weeds.  For a day and a half I occasionally turned the “curing” mulch with a pitchfork to expose still-green weeds to the sun.

Second newspaper/straw mulch of 2012
Step 3: I smothered still-to-sprout weeds by again laying down sheets of newspaper—until I ran out about halfway through the job.  I would have used cardboard in the walkways—if I had some.  I plan to collect some next winter for use in Tomato Patch 2013.

Step 4: I bought another bale of straw at a local farm to top off the re-mulched Tomato Patch.

In a future blog I’ll share some things I’ve learned from my encounter with living mulch.  In the meantime, thank you, readers, who sent recommendations from near (Maryland and West Virginia), far (California), and around the world (Australia).

If you wish to read my earlier posting about my living-mulch problem, CLICK HERE.

All's well, I hope, as temperature hits 97 degrees F.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Time to start fall brassica seedlings

I know we aren't even at the summer equinox yet, but its time to start thinking about starting fall broccoli and cauliflower.  Here's the scoop, work backward from the date you want to harvest your crop.  Let's take my favorite fall broccoli (Premium Crop produces lots of side shoots right up until it gets frozen out).

Say I want to harvest the central head around October 15 .  The seed starting date can be calculated by subtracting from the October 15 date, 14 days for fall's short day factor, the days to maturity for the fall crop, the time to raise seedlings to transplantable size and the days for the seeds to germinate.  For example, from October 15 I would subtract 14 days for the short day factor, 60 days for the days to maturity from transplant, five weeks to six weeks for raising seedlings to transplantable size (35 to 42 days) and 5 to 7 days for seed germination.

To make the calculation, I just plug these numbers into an Excel spreadsheet and get a seed starting date of June 14.  (I'm already behind).  So, moving forward from today's date (6/19) my seedlings will emerge in about a week and be ready to transplant the first week of August.  My premium crop broccoli will be ready to harvest in mid to late October, all the way to freeze up in December.

By following the simple equation outlined above, you can calculate the seed starting date for all of your fall transplants.  And for more information on starting seed for transplants, see the seed starting videos on HGIC's Youtube site.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Berry Patch: Picking raspberries early this year

Raspberries: four weeks earlier this year


Ellen picked half of a small bowl of Heritage red raspberries this morning, nearly a month earlier than in past years.

I was quite surprised a few days ago to see a large red raspberry and promptly picked and plopped it into my mouth.  Mmm, delicious.  And this morning I noticed quite a few ripe berries, which Ellen picked while I did other garden chores.  She predicts there’ll be another half bowl tomorrow.

I’ve just checked my Garden Notes to see if the berries really are ripening earlier than usual, or am I just imaging things?  On June 29, 2008, I picked “four.”  On July 1, 2007, I picked “several.”  On July 13, 2008, I picked “a handful.”  Last year I picked “a few” on July 18.

Yes, the raspberries are ripening nearly four weeks earlier than in earlier years.  What can I say other than, “Well, the warm winter must have given them an early start”?  Everything seems to be three to four weeks early this year—except the dreaded brown marmorated stink bugs.  I haven’t seen one yet on our raspberries, blackberries, or tomatoes.

If you’re thinking of planting a raspberry patch, I want to encourage you.  I’ve found the Heritage variety to be an easy small-fruit crop to care for.  If you want additional information, please read my earlier posting (February 27, 2011), “Raspberries: So easy to grow.”  It includes a link to the Western Maryland Research & Education Center” website and excellent, free information about growing raspberries and other berries.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The mystery of the birdless blueberries

Some day I would like to have a well-built blueberry cage (like Kent's) to grow many bushes in protected conditions.  For now, however, what I have is three bushes (with a fourth coming along) that are part of my landscaping in the front yard (next to the bed of Hemerocallis fulva, common orange daylily, that I inherited from the former owners).  Blueberries make excellent landscape plants, with their pretty flowers, clusters of berries in season, and glossy leaves that turn red in fall.

"But what about the birds?" people ask me.  I shrug and say that they get some of mine, but I still harvest plenty, and I'm not sure why (because everyone else with unprotected bushes seems to end up with no berries).  I'm still not quite sure why I manage to harvest most of my blueberry crop, but this weird year where everything came early has given me a clue.

Usually my berries start to ripen by the end of the first week of June.  This year, they were three weeks early, and I've been harvesting since mid-May.  I have three different varieties (some blueberry plants are self-pollinating, but most require another variety for pollination and therefore fruit).  Mine are Ivanhoe, Herbert, and Atlantic (they came as a set) and they usually ripen in that order.  Ivanhoe ripens very early compared to many blueberries; that's where I get the early June/mid-May berries.  I've always been able to harvest most of the Ivanhoes (I do see the birds visit the plant, but they don't seem to take much), and most of the Herberts, but few of the Atlantics, because by the time they ripen the birds are actively stealing.  (I'm sure they don't regard it as stealing; in fact they seem sure I'm stealing from them.)  This year, I've been harvesting Atlantics for a couple of weeks, and it wasn't until yesterday that I went out to harvest and found practically no ripe berries left, though plenty of unripe ones still hanging.

So my theory is that birds don't start eating blueberries in large numbers until mid-June, and the early season this year didn't affect that behavior, though it did affect berry ripening.  It may only be my local birds that are so particular; I can't promise that if you plant blueberry varieties labeled as early you'll get more fruit, but it's possible.

Other small fruits now available in my yard: black raspberries (birds eat these too, but I get plenty); Alpine strawberries (inside the vegetable garden fence, so not eaten by squirrels and rabbits, and the birds don't seem to notice them, especially the yellow ones); and tiny kolomikta or Siberian kiwi, just starting to ripen.  I may get a couple dozen fruits off my one female vine this year.  The male is more vigorous, not needing to make fruit, and has interesting variegated green/pink/white leaves.  I am adding another female this fall.  I don't think the birds notice the kiwis (don't tell them!).

We're starting another hardy kiwi variety (Issai, a self-pollinating arguta type) at the demo garden this year.  I hope it does well!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Tomato Patch: Help solve my mulch problem

Straw mulch, May 31
I have a new problem—living mulch—in the Tomato Patch, and I hope you will tell me how you think I can solve the problem.

I mulched most of my rows of tomato transplants in my usual way—sheets of newspaper covered with a thin layer of straw.  About a third of my plants are mulched just with straw because I ran out of newspaper.

Most years I discover one or two volunteer wheat plants—or maybe they’re barley—in late June or July—from seeds that hitch-hiked in with the straw.  I’ve always pulled those few volunteers without a thought.

'Living mulch,' June 14
This year, however, I have hundreds—no, thousands—of volunteer grain plants—weeds, if you will.  Tomato Patch looks like a newly seeded lawn sprouting in the springtime.  I think some farmer must have harvested his grain before it was fully ripe and much of the grain ended up in bales of straw for sale at a local farm-supply store instead of in a bag of flour or chicken feed.

What should I do?  I can easily hoe the volunteers at the edges of the rows, but how should I attack the living mulch in my rows of tomato plants?  It’s growing on top of the newspaper in places and directly in the garden soil where I hadn’t used newspaper.

Help!  If you have a suggestion, please post a Comment—soon.

I’ll let you know later how I solve this baleful problem—if I do indeed.

Fruit, glorious fruit


But make it native…There are many varieties of fruit plants out there for the home gardener. The majority of them are not native plants . They were cultivated for larger fruit size, color and texture. These non native fruits are plentiful in the supermarket aisles. But that does not mean it have more nutritional value than the native fruits. In fact, native fruits are packed with more nutrients than most of the supermarket varieties.  Furthermore, Natives are more pest resistant and disease resistant,  making them easier to grow. Give it a try in your home garden,  grow it for wildlife or for yourself...

A listing of native fruit plants :
Amelanchier Canadensis, Serviceberry. 6-10 feet, fruits are used to make pies and preserves.  Native Indian ingredient to make pemmican.
Asimina triloba, the pawpaw.   This is the largest wild edible fruit. Fruit is the shape of mango.
Diospyros virginiana, American Persimmon. 30-80 feet. Edible fruit.
Malus coronaria (Pyrus coronaria), sweet crabapple. 10-30 feet. Fruits are used to make jams.
Passiflora incarnata, commonly known as maypop, purple passionflower, true passionflower, wild apricot, and wild passion vine. Used as herbal medicine.
Prunus americana, commonly called the American Plum, Wild Plum, or Marshall's Large Yellow Sweet Plum. Up to 15 feet. Fruits are used to make jams, wine, or eaten raw.
Prunus serotina , native black cherry. 60-90 feet. Fruits are best used in pies and jams.
Sambucus Canadensis, Elderberry. 5-12 feet. fruits used to make wine and pies.
Viburnum triobum, American Cranberry bush. 6-10 feet. Fruits best used in cranberry sauce and jams.
Vitis spp., Wild Grape, 3 common species in Maryland :Vitis labrusca, Fox grape;Vitis aeistuate, Summer grape;Vitis riparis, River Bank grape

American Persimmon




Sweet crabapple

Passion Flower