Archive for category Vegetable Gardening
Last growing season, Renee’s Garden offered me the chance to try a few free seed varieties. As a member of the Garden Writers Association, vendors of garden-related items occasionally send me free samples of their products, in the hopes that I will review them favorably. I was very happy with the results of the free seeds that Renee’s Garden sent me last year. You can read my reviews in Part 1 and Part 2.
This year when I received my order form for free seeds, I decided to add a few vegetables to my Renee’s Garden trials. Today’s entry covers my results with these vegetable varieties.
As you likely know if you’re reading here, vegetable gardening is the fastest growing area of interest for new gardeners. Analysts speculate that this interest is driven in part by folks who want access to high-quality vegetables at reasonable prices. Whatever the reason, I think it’s wonderful that more newbie gardeners are out in their yards playing in the dirt. I tried a beet variety, two carrots, a spinach, and a pepper mix.
Beet, Dutch “Red Baron”
I always grow Red Ace beets, because they do well for me every year, and I like their sweet, robust flavor. As a comparison, I tried Red Baron from Renee’s Garden. Beets don’t really transplant well, so I always direct-sow them into the vegetable beds. Germination rates for the two varieties were both high; if anything, Red Baron did slightly better. Vigor of the plants also appeared to be nearly identical. In fact, if I hadn’t labeled my rows, it would have been easy to mix them up based only on top growth. However, differences in flavor readily distinguish Red Baron from Red Ace.
This was not my best year for root crops. I think perhaps uncharacteristically heavy spring rains may have had something to do with this. Still, when it became clear that summer heat was asserting itself, root crop yields were respectable.
Between Red Ace and Red Baron beets, Red Ace had a much sweeter flavor, but we found that we liked Red Baron too. Red Baron beets were earthier, more hearty, in flavor. I think they would be the basis of a delicious borscht. Red Ace beets are better suited to salads. I would grow Red Baron again.
Carrot, Nantes “Starica” & Carrot, Snacking “Rotild”
As you can see in the above photo, many of the carrots did not grow as optimally as I’d like. Most of what you see are the Renee’s Garden varieties. They grew more robustly than the several carrot varieties I tried from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which surprised me. Johnny’s offers pelleted carrot seeds, which makes these tiny seeds easier to handle while planting. I am able to space the seeds in the row far enough apart that they don’t require much thinning as they grow.
Renee’s Garden carrot seeds were not pelleted. I ended up doing major thinning to their rows. Interesting to me, Renee’s carrot seeds germinated at much higher rates than Johnny’s pelleted seeds, which is why I ended up with more of those varieties at harvest. I’ve never had such poor germination results with pelleted carrots before; I’m not sure why this happened.
As for flavor, despite their less-than-lovely looks, these Nantes-type varieties were both tasty. Starica was sweeter than Rotild.
Spinach, “Summer Perfection”
The blurb about this Dutch spinach variety sold by Renee’s Garden states that it “stands up to early summer heat.” I’m thinking that Dutch and/or California (location of Renee’s Garden) early summer heat must be a pale imitation of North Carolina Piedmont early summer heat. Summer Perfection bolted fast and early for me, just as soon as our high temperatures hit 80 degrees Fahrenheit (i.e., late March).
I grew this variety, along with all my other greens, beneath a canopy of spun garden cloth. The transplants went in before the last frost and were protected by the garden cloth. As temperatures rose, the garden cloth shaded the greens. I think this system (aided by phenomenal spring rains) kept some of the greens going into May — an unprecedented growing season for me!
Summer Perfection leaves were delicious before they bolted, but the variety is probably not worth growing in my climate. They just don’t last long enough to provide a sufficient return on my investment in them.
Pepper, Italian Sweet “Sunset Mix”
Every year, I grow a hybrid variety of Sweet Italian pepper called Carmen. Plants are consistently vigorous, overwhelmingly productive, and the scarlet fruits are reliably sweet, zinging the palate with a vitamin C tang. So when I saw that Renee was offering an heirloom mix of the pepper type from which Carmen is derived, I was curious, especially since I was promised plants with yellow or red fruits.
I have a love-hate relationship with most heirloom plants. In the southeastern US where I garden, our fungal diseases and insect pests are numerous and often devastating, and our summers are usually brutally hot and frequently plagued by drought. Most heirloom varieties I’ve tried start out strongly, but soon succumb to the growing challenges of my region.
I sow pepper and tomato seeds in my greenhouse and transplant them into their summer beds when growing conditions stabilize. Peppers especially don’t do well if you transplant them before nighttime temperatures stop dipping into the low 50s. The germination rate for Sunset Mix was about 60%. I routinely get 100% germination from Carmen seeds, and that was the case again this past spring. I attributed the difference to the hybrid vigor of Carmen and was not really surprised.
Vigor of the transplants was good. Sunset Mix plants grew as tall as the Carmens. Each plant produced a fair amount of fruit, but not at the hybrid vigor levels of my Carmen plants. As you can see by the harvest basket photo above, Sunset Mix produced some nice-looking peppers. Their flavors were good, but had much more bite than Carmen fruits. I found that Sunset Mix peppers did not always please my digestive system, while the milder, sweeter Carmen fruits never bothered me. I donated most of the Sunset Mix fruits to friends and the local food bank, where they were much appreciated.
I would not grow any of these varieties again, except perhaps the Red Baron beets. Even though the carrots were productive, they didn’t seem to appreciate my soil. I’ve had much better success with other carrot varieties. The spinach bolted so fast that I deem it to have been a waste of bed space. The peppers, although productive, just couldn’t match the flavor and productivity of my Carmen hybrid plants.
Still, my garden is big enough to accommodate a few experiments, and I will continue to try a few varieties that intrigue me. I never know when I might stumble on a treasure worth adding to my list of essential varieties.
Coming soon: Results of this year’s trials with Renee’s Garden flower seeds.
Signs multiply daily. Reddening leaves:
I first heard about it from the flock of American Robins that blew in about three weeks ago. As they stripped purple Pokeweed berries from magenta stems and gobbled elderberries, branches bent from their weight, they muttered among themselves: “Autumn’s on its way.”
Raucous cries of Pileated Woodpeckers echo through the forest as they argue with greedy robins and complain about magnolia cones ripening too slowly. A few mornings ago just after sunrise, three of these crow-sized woodpeckers called and flew in circles over my head for a minute or so. Two were chasing a third, making it clear that the interloper was not welcome.
And today, as Wonder Spouse and I walked beside the creek, we startled Wild Turkeys on the other side. They squawked once, then ran silently to the blackberry thicket, where they disappeared amid its prickly greenness.
We were down by the creek so that Wonder Spouse could photograph this beauty for me:
Our wonderfully wet, mild summer made our two Franklin Trees very happy. Both grew several feet higher, and the mature specimen produced more flower buds than I have ever seen before. Spent snowy blossoms littered the ground beneath it, still faintly emitting their gentle rose-like scent. I held down the branch, so that Wonder Spouse could take the shot. You can see its close kinship to camellias by the form of its breath-taking bloom. The leaves of our smaller tree are already sporting garnet hues. But the flower-producing tree remains green-leaved.
Every time I think the record numbers of swallowtail butterflies are waning, another wave of fresh-winged beauties descends on every bloom in the yard. The Chinese Abelia still plays host to dozens, even though its sweet white flower clusters are beginning to diminish, but that’s OK, because the Seven-Son Flower Tree is in full, fragrant bloom, attracting every pollinator in the neighborhood, from butterflies to bumblebees, mason bees, and hawk moths. I cannot use my front walk without getting bumped into by a floating winged beauty.
The abundance of butterflies has been a bonanza for predators as well. Myriad dragonflies pick off the lazy flutterers in mid-air, scattering severed wings of gold and black along the walk.
And the most certain early sign of autumn abounds: spider webs. As fast as I knock one down walking anywhere in my yard, the industrious weavers rebuild. A particularly clever female Writing Spider has declared her domain over the water feature in our front garden. The abundant blooming spires of Cardinal Flowers are irresistible to butterflies, and this fattening weaver is taking full advantage of that fact, even bending the top of one spire to anchor her web.
Yesterday, I saw her trap and devour at least two large butterflies. Today, she seems to have doubled in size.
Perhaps in response to her rapid growth, today a male Writing Spider has built a modest web adjacent to this queen, even using a corner of her web as an anchor. Much smaller than the female he lusts for, he will wait for just the right moment to woo her. It won’t be long, I predict. Usually the females deposit their egg sacs in thick, winter-proof webs well before the leaves begin to fall in earnest.
Cricket songs now rule nights and mornings, replacing the steady thrum of summer cicadas. Occasional cold fronts rush in behind lines of thunderstorms, freshening our air for a day or two before summer reasserts itself, cloaked in humidity.
Autumn will dominate soon enough, that we know for sure. For now, we can revel in the transitions, as plants and animals shift from growth to fruit to sleep.
It’s a transitional time of year for many people too. Schools start, and birthdays occur in bunches, as those born under the sign of Virgo celebrate another dance around the sun. I send best birthday wishes to all my Virgo kin and friends, and most especially to my favorite nephew, AJR, who celebrates what many consider a milestone moment tomorrow. Happy Birthday, sir. May your journey lead you everywhere you want to go.
As gardening seasons go, this one has been more full of surprises than usual. My eyes have been opened to just how much water vegetables really need to be happy — and how much more than that they can handle.
Thanks to a string of growing seasons filled with long streaks of 100+-degree days and prolonged droughts, I’ve become pretty good at gauging a vegetable’s minimum water requirements. A shallow well for the garden that routinely dried up by August necessitated strict water rationing.
Not this year. I don’t think we’ve gone more than 10 days without at least an inch of rain. Fungus flourishes, it’s true, but so does everything else. Canopy-sized trees are still putting on bright new green growth — in early August! Plants are re-blooming at unprecedented rates. As I wander around my yard, I sometimes feel as if I’ve stepped into an alternate universe, so different is this year’s August landscape from previous years.
More about that another time. Today I want to offer an overdue update on the vegetable garden. The pole beans in the harvest basket photo above are Fortex. I’ve always had good success with them, but I never realized before this year that they were dying out by July in past years because I just wasn’t giving them enough water. This year, they topped their trellis by the beginning of May, reached the bottom of the other side by the end of June, and now they are heading back up again — at least, mostly. Some seem to be heading horizontally for the next county, despite my attempts to encourage the vines to remain on the trellis.
I’m picking a good mess of beans every other day now. It was every day until about three weeks ago, so I guess they are slowing productivity a bit. As I did last year, I interplanted the beans with a climbing nasturtium. Last year, the two species played well together, but this year’s abundant water has produced quite the tangled mess of vegetation.
The deep orange-red flowers near the bottom are the nasturtiums. Some have climbed higher, just not in this shot. The lighter orange flowers on the far right are Queen Sophia marigolds.
As you can see by the harvest basket, I’m also still picking tomatoes, but not nearly as many as in previous years by this time. This wet year has taught me that my organically grown tomatoes stay healthier and more productive during drought years, because the fungal diseases that are plaguing them this year just can’t flourish without abundant rainfall. Limiting their water supply also intensifies the flavor of the tomato fruits. This year’s ‘maters, while tasty, are just not as vibrantly flavorful as in past years. And, yes, I’m mostly growing the same varieties as I had in previous years.
You’ll also see in the basket a couple of sweet Italian peppers — Carmen is the variety name. These beauties are the best-looking veggies in the garden right now. We’re about to be buried in an avalanche of sweet, juicy peppers with just a hint of zing. They are so vibrantly flavorful that I think perhaps I can taste their Vitamin C. So good!
I’m also growing a few plants from a seed packet of mixed Italian heirloom peppers. So far, one plant has produced a lovely ripe yellow fruit. Another one appears to be turning its fruit orange. Stay tuned for further developments.
Additionally, I got a free seed packet for a purple cayenne pepper. Of course, I had to try it, but I did limit myself to growing just one plant. Cayennes are notoriously prolific pepper producers, and my purple-fruited specimen is living up to my past experiences.
The basils are having a great year. Because my vegetable garden is a fair hike from the kitchen, I cut stems of fresh basil and put them in a water-filled vase on the kitchen counter. That way, Wonder Spouse remembers to add leaves to his many wonderful culinary creations. Plus the sweet-spicy scent wafting from the leaves freshens the air.
I was worried that the rampant fungal fiesta ongoing in my vegetable garden might hurt the heirloom zinnias or sunflowers that I got from Renee’s Garden Seeds this year. But they are thriving, and have bloomed nonstop since May.
Other parts of the yard are still blooming too, and I’ll share more in another post. For now, I’ll close with a favorite perennial that I associate with summer’s waning — Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis). I don’t think one can ever have enough of these in one’s garden — and I’m fairly certain that the hummingbirds and butterflies agree with me.
Record amounts of rainfall this growing season continue to create ripple effects throughout my landscape and gardens. For the first time I can remember, I harvested two zucchinis today. Normally by this point in the summer, heat, drought, and insect pests have exterminated my squash crop. Not this year. Zucchini spice bread, anyone?
Likewise, the Fortex pole beans seem to be ramping up for another surge in bean production. The vines have already climbed their six-foot trellis, grown down the other side, and now I’m trying to persuade them to climb back up again.
Tomatoes? Oh yes, we’ve got tomatoes. The plants are fighting fungal diseases, but the fruits are coming in bigtime. Ornamental flowers, which have often surrendered to the heat by now, continue to bloom with abandon. I’ve got sunflowers, zinnias, nasturtiums, and cosmos among the annuals. Perennials like black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, salvias, verbenas, daylilies, and now cardinal flowers have never been happier.
The rain has also produced a bumper crop of biting flies, gnats, and mosquitoes, among the aerial pests. But that’s not all bad, because the record abundance of flying insects has also brought record numbers of predators to prey on them. Insect eaters like Eastern Bluebirds, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Carolina Wrens, and Eastern Phoebes patrol the skies from dawn to dusk. Numerous bats take care of night patrol. And during the heat of the day, when the birds relax in the shade, the sky dragons take over.
I have not yet spent the time needed to learn the names of our local dragonflies, but I can tell you our landscape is blessed by quite a number of species, some small, some as large as the hummingbirds with whom they share the sky. Wonder Spouse was so struck by the diversity of dragonflies in our yard last weekend that he spent some time capturing them with his camera. In fact, all the photos in this post were taken by Wonder Spouse.
Dragonflies are efficient hunters, and yes, they do grab and devour an occasional butterfly on the wing. But they glitter like jewels; their wings appear to be made from delicate lace, yet are strong enough for aerial maneuvers any stunt pilot must envy.
As much as I love the butterflies, this year we can lose a few to the dragonflies. My Chinese Abelia, a massive shrub about 10 feet tall and equally wide, has been blooming since June — and continues to do so. All day long, it is visited simultaneously by at least a hundred butterflies. I’ve never seen so many!
Between the drifting flight of butterflies and the zooming quick starts and stops of the dragonflies, I get bumped into on a regular basis as I walk around my yard.
Patterns on the wings of the dragonflies are likely diagnostic. I really must learn the names of these hunters.
Butterflies, of course, are silent creatures. If I stand right next to the blooming abelia, I can sometimes hear a gentle fluttering of wings by the Spicebush Swallowtails, which never seem to remain motionless for more than a few seconds. Dragonflies make a bit of a buzzing noise as they zip erratically through the air, snagging snacks on the wing.
But for aerial maneuvers with sound effects, you can’t beat the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. This season has brought a bumper crop of them to the front feeder. The bejeweled beauties visit it from dawn to full dark. It seems to be a pit stop for them when they tire of dashing from coral honeysuckle to cardinal flower to salvia to abelia, all the while chittering as they argue over the rights to a particularly tasty nectar source.
After an early morning harvest session in the vegetable garden, I spend probably too much time sitting in the shade and watching the aerial show. I’m not the only one. I often spy a Green Anole perched on a shrub or vine within grabbing distance of unwary butterflies. And a large Green Frog usually meditates in one of the pots of sedges and pitcher plants sitting in our front water feature. The cicadas thrum, the hummingbirds swoop and squeal; in the distance, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo calls from the treetops, predicting more rain.
Pesky bugs and all, it’s the best summer we’ve had in years. I reckon I’m not going to feel to guilty for enjoying it as much as possible.
Perhaps you’ve heard? It’s been raining a lot in my area for the past several weeks. Actually, it’s been pouring — veritable waterfalls from the sky cascading in fat droplets the size of marbles. I’ve lived in this part of North Carolina for well over 50 years. It has never rained like this. Not ever.
The local meteorologists back me up on this. They’ve noted record rainfall amounts that triple our “normal” accumulations. Talk about your mixed blessings. The photo above was taken about 9:00 a.m. after a day and night of rain. I’ve lost track of how many inches fell, but it was more than enough to push the creek that forms one of our property boundaries out of its banks — in at least a half dozen spots — and onto our floodplain.
It looks a lot like a raging river, doesn’t it? Muddy water tears by in multiple interweaving currents. But it’s not even the sights you notice when you step outside. The smell assaults you first — mucky, decaying, fungus-filled deep humidity. Then you notice the roar of the water as it leaps over the bank of the creek onto the floodplain, currents scouring paths in the silt, carrying fish, driftwood, and assorted bits of trash deep into the swamp, where the currents finally weaken, morphing into a murky pond.
The floodplain is on the south side of our property. The creek banks on the north side are higher. The only time the creek ever leapt out of its banks there was during Hurricane Fran, when fallen trees forced the water sideways. This time, the water backed up a bit on the north side:
The water in the foreground covers the trail beside the creek, where we usually walk. The creek breached the bank further downstream, then back-filled itself up the path, right up to our back fence line.
We count ourselves deeply fortunate. Our power was never off for more than a few hours at a time, and we experienced no strong wind gusts during the unrelenting downpour. Our completely saturated ground could not have held the large canopy trees upright, if strong winds had bullied them. We did lose one canopy tree on the floodplain: a large Ash. Its root ball was completely undercut by rushing water.
Alas, the Ash fell smack onto my Sweet Bay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), which was covered in swelling white flower buds. The Ash sheared off one of the two main branches of the Magnolia. If the mud on the floodplain ever dries up enough for us to walk on, we’ll try to clean up the damage to the Sweet Bay. For now, all we can do is share our sympathies with the maimed Magnolia.
By about 2:00 p.m. on the day I took the above photos, the creek had grudgingly retreated — mostly — back to within its banks, leaving only a few thin streams running across the far southern end of our property beside the swamp. I took a picture to show how it looked.
That’s the creek in back, just barely where it’s supposed to be. The foreground shows one of the spots where it overflowed with rushing current, hence the flattened vegetation and the abundant fresh sand/silt deposits. I gave up walking pretty quickly. I was sinking past my ankles in my boots, and it was very difficult to pull myself out — one foot at a time — to move anywhere. I knew if I fell over, the mud might swallow me whole, so I retreated.
We’ve had two whole days without rain now, maybe three, but the floodplain is still nothing but mud. Too muddy for Wonder Spouse to try to cut up the fallen Ash and trim up the wounded Sweet Bay Magnolia. He was able to cut up the other tree we lost — a dying Black Cherry at the top of our hill. It simply fell over, pulling down some of our deer fencing that encloses the north side of our yard. The root system was weakened by disease and the ground was wetter than it may have ever been before. Eerily, Wonder Spouse had mentioned to me the week before that he wanted to take down that tree anyway, noting its sickliness. I guess the tree wanted to save him the trouble.
The most astonishing thing to me through this crazy wet summer is how the plants and animals have responded. I knew we had been living in varying states of drought for the last 17 or so years, but I hadn’t realized how thirsty the plants were — until I’ve seen how they’ve responded to basically unlimited water. I am almost afraid.
Don’t get me wrong, the trees look great. Instead of the raggedy brown look they’ve been sporting most summers by this time, they look nearly as freshly green as they did when they leafed out in April. In recent years, the Tulip Poplar leaves have been turning yellow and dropping by now, their response to insufficient water. Not this year.
And, good golly, the weeds. Have mercy, the weeds! As I walk from my front door to the vegetable garden at the top of the hill, I try to look straight ahead, focusing only on the path before me. Because if I look anywhere else, I see flowers struggling in a jungle of Japanese Stilt Grass approaching four feet tall, Pokeweed the height of pro basketball players, Poison Ivy plotting to grab me by the ankles and pull me into the overgrown areas full of ripening blackberries and volunteer tree saplings. The green areas I call lawn are requiring me to mow them (weather permitting) weekly. Usually by now I’m mowing every 6-8 weeks, as the drought forces lawn plants into slow-growing survival mode.
The birds are deliriously happy over the abundant wild blackberry supply. And the bugs. Gnats form sky-blackening clouds. Biting flies slam into my hat-covered head like bullets as I traverse the path to the garden. Mosquitoes bite me through my clothes. Ticks dangle hungrily from every blade and branch. It is a bona fide jungle out there, folks. And I am completely outnumbered.
Despite the plagues of weeds and bugs, my garden is hanging tough. The tomatoes are finally thinking about ripening. They needed sunlight — a commodity in very short supply these last few weeks. Now it’s a race between the moisture-loving fungal diseases and the ripening of the fruits. I’m not sure which will win yet. I’m still picking squashes daily.
Despite the usual bug attacks, the plants are still producing. I think the abundant soil moisture is allowing them to hang tough longer than usual. Ditto for the Fortex pole beans. Never have they produced so abundantly for so long. The pepper plants grow heavier with fruit daily, but no signs of ripening yet.
In short, for the first time in my gardening life, my vegetables have all the water they could possibly want.
As usual, the Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes are ripening first, but we have eaten a few wonderful Bella Rosas, a couple of seed-grown Early Goliath fruits, and a couple of Viva Italias.
Despite competition from out-of-control weeds, the later blooming daylilies have looked lovely. Case in point:
I can’t close this too-lengthy post without showing you how my Plumleaf Azalea responded to the abundant water. This summer-blooming deciduous azalea is always the Grand Finale to my procession of beautiful azaleas, the effect of its flowers somewhat muted by the presence of leaves. All the others bloom before the leaves emerge in spring.
I took these photos last week early in the morning. We had received another three-quarters of an inch of rain the night before, so it was misty outside.
Here’s a closer view of the flowers. The leaves are a bit damaged, but the flowers more than compensate as far as I’m concerned.
Finally, I’ll leave you with a fuzzy Monet-esque shot of the Plumleaf Azalea in my landscape. If I had skill with watercolors, I would try to paint this.
Here’s hoping the meteorologists are over-estimating the amount of rainfall predicted for this weekend.
During the fleeting moments of sunshine in recent weeks, Wonder Spouse found time to harvest his potatoes. I first told you about his plans for a potato-growing experiment here. And I updated you on the experiment here. The verdict according to Wonder Spouse (and me): Success!
You may recall that Wonder Spouse, a devoted fan of potatoes in in their myriad culinary forms, had grown frustrated with growing spuds in our lovely soil. The potatoes grew magnificently, but the voracious voles ate at least half the crop. Like so many varmints, the voles wouldn’t devour whole potatoes, preferring to nibble a bit on most of them, which caused steam to escape Wonder Spouse’s ears, even when he wasn’t standing in the summer sun.
When Wonder Spouse spied grow bags on sale in one of the thousands of gardening catalogs that fill our mailbox, he was intrigued — and hopeful. Would growing his beloved spuds within the grow bags protect the tubers from vole predation — and still produce acceptable yields? Thus was born The Great Potato Experiment.
We bought three of the largest size grow bags and, after much agonizing over the potato catalog (What — you didn’t know there are whole catalogs devoted to spud sales?), Wonder Spouse selected three potato varieties: a fingerling, the name of which escapes me, Viking Purple, and Bison. In my area, you can find Bisons in the farmers’ markets and speciality grocery stores, but we’ve never seen WS’s beloved Viking Purples anywhere. He purchased a pound of seed potatoes of each variety, and when early spring arrived, planted them in the bags — one bag for each variety.
He created his own soil mix — a combination of compost, leaves, and our lovely soil, filled each bag a third of its height, and planted the seed potatoes. As the plants grew tall, he unfolded another third of the bag, filling in with soil, in the hopes that more tubers would form at this level. When the plants grew tall again, he unfolded the final third of the bags, filled them with soil, and settled in to wait for harvest time.
The plants grew well and appeared quite vigorous. They didn’t bloom much. Traditionally, blooming marks the time when you can steal a few new potatoes — just to tide you over till harvest. However, Wonder Spouse didn’t want to disturb the bags even to forage for new potatoes. So we waited.
The fingerling plants faded first. I neglected to photograph the harvest — sorry about that. But his one pound of seed potatoes yielded about 5.5 pounds of fingerling crop — an acceptable yield. All potatoes were perfect in form, unmolested by varmints, and delicious every way they were cooked.
During a brief sunshine episode during our Wettest Summer Ever during the July 4 holiday, Wonder Spouse harvested the Viking Purples in the above photo, and the Bisons, shown below. No doubt about it, they were perfect potatoes — no blemishes, no chew marks, just superlative-looking spuds. For his one pound each of seed potatoes, Wonder Spouse harvested right around 8 pounds of potatoes. Although this is an excellent return on his investment, Wonder Spouse still wishes he had gotten more potatoes out of each bag.
To that end, he has decided to revise his methodology slightly for next year’s crop. He noticed that all the potatoes were at the bottom of the bag. No potatoes formed as he pulled the bag higher and added soil. He suspects (and I agree) that the soil mix he used was probably too heavy to stimulate new potato production higher up on the plants. Next year, he is planning to fill the top two levels with shredded leaves, mixed with just a bit of compost. He’s hoping the lighter mix will encourage potato production at all three levels.
Also, and especially if we spot the bags on sale again in late summer, we will invest in three more bags. We have a dry, cool basement where potatoes store very well. Twice (or more) the amount of spuds we got this year will not go bad before their enthusiastic consumption, of that you can be sure.
My guess is that Wonder Spouse will end up purchasing six different varieties of seed potatoes, one kind for each bag. Among the hundreds (yes, hundreds) of potato varieties out there, Wonder Spouse insists he can taste, see, and feel the subtle differences, and I’m sure he can. I don’t (affectionately) call him Mr. Potato Head for nothing.
One of the great imponderables of gardening life: Why does it take so long for the first tomato of the season to ripen? And then when it does, why does it take forever for the rest of the tomatoes to transform from hard green to juicy red?
Amidst the heavy harvest of Fortex pole beans, one Sweet Treats cherry tomato was ready yesterday. It was consumed with great ceremony at last night’s dinner — one half going to Wonder Spouse, the other to me. It was so good!
But now the waiting begins in earnest. So many green tomatoes, so few signs of color change — except for yesterday’s delicious outlier. Somehow the memory of its perfect tomato flavor must satisfy us for — who knows how long?
All the tomato plants are still very actively growing. I tie new growth to the trellises daily. The undersides of my thumbnails are stained dark green from using my nails to snip off unwanted suckers as I tie my enthusiastic charges. When I wash up, the soap suds turn yellow-green from the tomato pigments that coat my hands as I groom the plants.
I’ve been doing this — growing tomatoes — for over four decades now. The routine is the same every summer. About fifteen or so summers ago, I wrote a poem about growing tomatoes. I hope you’ll indulge me as I share it with you here.
There they go again.
This year I swore I’d keep them under control –
every sucker pruned,
every new shoot tied to a support.
I thought I had them tamed.
Obediently, they clasped their cages –
yellow flowers nodding
from the weight of visiting bees.
Today, the riot is well underway.
An antigravity avalanche of green
shoots skyward, sideways, all ways –
like a group of guilty children scattering
in all directions at the approach of an adult.
I can almost hear them giggling.
So here I am once again –
This is not a task for timid souls.
You must wade right into the plants,
disregarding spiders and sticky aphids.
You must show no fear as you use a firm hand
to tie them to their supports.
Emerging from the struggle,
sweaty and coated in green tomato tang,
I bow to my partners.
Soon they will offer me heavy red globes
to transform into refreshing summer salads,
and fragrant rich sauces to freeze for winter feasts,
certain to fuel warm dreams
of summer sambas with tomatoes.
Happy Summer, everyone. May the fruits of your labors bring you as much delight as mine bring to me.
As the last hours of astronomical Spring wind down, the first summer fruits of the season were ready for harvesting in my garden today. In the basket are a Y-Star patty-pan squash, 2 Noche zucchinis, and 1 Spineless Perfection zucchini. The Noches are the darker fruits on the left. I predict that an equal number (or more!) will be ready tomorrow. Yup, it’s squash-for-breakfast-lunch-and-dinner time!
Of course, we’ve been eating Spring crops for a couple of months. The below-normal temperatures allowed us to harvest truly wonderful lettuces and spinaches until two weeks ago. The beet crop is coming in. We’ve conducted an initial taste test between the two varieties we grew, which I’ll report on later. The carrots are still trying, but, as is usual in my garden, carrots are a bit of an uphill battle. Wonder Spouse harvested almost all the onions two weeks ago. They are stored in the basement until he needs them for another of his culinary masterpieces – oh yes, ladies, he cooks too.
We got about a half inch from a passing thunderstorm yesterday, so the veggies all looked shiny and fresh this morning. Here’s what one of the zucchini plants looked like before I picked:
This Y-Star patty pan plant looked equally busy:
It’s easy to tell by the exuberant growth of the squashes, the zillions of skinny beanlets dangling from the Fortex pole bean vines, the clusters of green globes beneath wide tomato leaves, and the tiny peppers pushing out from sturdy Italian pepper plants that the Summer Solstice is nearly here. In my garden, it will arrive at 1:04 a.m. EDT this Friday morning, June 21.
I didn’t really need a calendar to tell me Summer was knocking at the door. The plants and animals that share my five acres of green chaos have been reminding me for weeks now. As more evidence, I offer two more participants in the ongoing daylily parade.
Happy Almost Summer, ya’ll!
I am happy to report that Wonder Spouse’s Great Potato Experiment appears to be proceeding well. You may recall that WS is trying grow-bags for his potatoes this year to thwart the greedy chomping of voracious voles on innocent tubers. He began by filling the bags one third of the way full of compost and soil, then planted his potatoes — three kinds, one in each bag. The above photo is an attempt to get all three bags in one shot. It’s not easy. They have grown — a lot.
Here’s what two of the bags looked like on May 9. At that point, Wonder Spouse had folded up another third of the bag and filled in more compost and soil around the stems of the enthusiastic plants.
Over this past long holiday weekend, he unfolded the final third of the bags, bringing them to their full height. Once again, he filled in compost and soil around the stems of the plants. The idea here is that new potatoes are produced from the newly covered stem nodes, thereby producing successive layers of tubers.
Here’s what two of the bags looked like a day or so after he filled the bags for the final time:
Already, the plants are taller than what you see in the photo. The burning question plaguing Wonder Spouse’s potato-fevered brain is, “Do I have growing tubers, and are they numerous?” “There’s the rub,” as the Bard once wrote.
The same methodology that we think is thwarting the voles is also preventing Wonder Spouse from checking on tuber production. The plants are jam-packed into those bags. To try to dig into them seeking tubers would be to risk damaging the plants.
Thus, Wonder Spouse, aka Mr. Potato Head, impatiently waits. Potato harvest traditionally occurs when the plants begin to fade and die, usually some time in June around here. New potatoes are said to be ready for harvest when the plants bloom. Ours bloomed a bit, but Wonder Spouse decided not to risk damaging his long-term prospects for a healthy potato yield.
And so we wait, watering occasionally. And when I foliar feed the veggies in a day or so, I’ll be sure to give the potatoes a dose too. Meanwhile, the suspense builds…
You may also recall that I had planned to compare the same varieties of two grafted tomato plants with two seed-grown plants of the same types. However, the grafted plants I received in the mail were past recovery on arrival, as I documented here. It turns out, that’s not the end of the story.
Via a terse e-mail from customer support, I was informed that my money for the plants would be refunded. I didn’t ask for this; they offered. On the other hand, the nice folks at the Oregon greenhouse operation that produces the grafted plants for the wholesale market wrote me several e-mails, including one in which they offered to send me new plants. I thanked them for their kind offer, but declined, pointing out that it was too late for a fair comparison, given the then-enormous size of my seed-grown tomatoes in my little greenhouse.
I was forced to wait much later than usual this year to plant out my tomatoes. Most years, they are in the ground and growing by late April. This year, it was about two weeks later. I was trying to avoid exposing the transplants to nighttime temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. I didn’t succeed. This has been one wacky weather spring. Last Saturday night — May 26 — the temperature in my garden dropped to 38 degrees! Fortunately, there was no frost, the sun came up quickly, and no plants appeared to be damaged. However, their growth has been slower than normal, I suspect, due to the chilly nighttime temperatures.
On May 9, I was feeling good about the summer vegetable garden. My beans were coming up with impressive enthusiasm, and the seed-grown tomato transplants appeared to be adjusting well to their new surroundings. Imagine my astonishment when that day’s mail included a box of two grafted tomato plants from the company that had promised me a refund. I was flabbergasted — and confused. And curious. What would the plants look like this time around?
If you compare these to the pictures of the ones I received previously, the difference in vigor is apparent. I didn’t ask for these plants, and they were vastly smaller than their seed-grown equivalents already in the summer garden, but they were here. So I did what any obsessive gardener would do — I planted them the next day.
When I unpacked the box, I discovered an addition to the packing instructions. This was not in the first delivery I received:
Trust me, those first plants I received were not salvageable even by gardeners with two green thumbs.
I took the little plants to my greenhouse and arranged them for a photographic comparison:
If you click on the above photo to enlarge it, you should be able to see that the newly arrived grafted plants are in front. Behind them are the dead stubs of the first grafted plants that were sent to me. Behind them are two seed-grown plants of the same varieties that I didn’t have room for in the garden. I deemed these plants to be lesser candidates for transplantation, so they lingered in the greenhouse as back-ups, if needed. Brandywines are on the left, Goliaths on the right.
Here’s what the plants looked like in the garden this past weekend, about two weeks since they were first transplanted.
It may be a little difficult to tell from these photos, but I would estimate that the grafted plants were about a third of the size of the seed-grown specimens. All my seed-grown tomato transplants are now sporting green fruits, as you can see here:
To confuse me further, a few days ago, the company from which I ordered the grafted plants credited my credit card for the plants. I guess they were trying to be nice, which I appreciate, but I would have much preferred that a human being had contacted me with an apology instead.
Bottom line: I will attempt to proceed with the grafted vs. seed-grown tomato experiment as best I can. Measuring growth rates is mostly a subjective matter, of course. But I can count the number of fruits each plant produces. And I can record when the plants are overcome by the many diseases that usually claim my tomatoes by late August. Brandywines are heirlooms, meaning they lack hybrid resistance to diseases. In my garden, this usually translates to the production of a few delicious fruits, then the demise of the plant to disease. Will reputed grafted vigor keep that Brandywine alive and productive longer?
Stay tuned, garden fans. I’ll keep you posted.