Sunday, July 21, 2013

Weekend update: photos of progress in the garden at midsummer

Hello all--

Below is a photographic update of what I am doing in the garden at this point in the summer.  By now most of the planting is done, save that of the fall crops.  Many of us are already harvesting early or even midsummer produce, the stuff of an organic gardener's dreams throughout a snowy February.

I did a bit of "work" in the garden this Saturday, mostly poking around my plants.  I like to check up on each plant at least once a week, doing a relatively thorough assessment.  It's important to watch one's crops for disease, water distress, breakage, pests, theft, and, worst of all, unpicked produce.  By mid-July, many plants are on the cusp of producing edible fruit, so I pay extra attention to those on the verge.  If I'm not careful, I'll be absolutely drowned in overripe tomatillos around the first week of August.

Checking on the tomatillos.  As you can see above, tomatillos have a tomato-like growth habit, and have quickly outgrown their cages.  Unlike tomatoes, tomatillos grow in a papery husk, and don't deepen from red to green.  They are ripe when the fruit begins to outgrow the husk, and can be used for many permutations of salsa verde.  On a side note, these plants are far more prolific than I had anticipated.  Let me know in the comments if you are interested in learning more about tomatillos.

Every day I come to work in the garden, I am greeted by a mass of cheery blue Bachelor's Button.  I decided to start growing these when I found out they were a classic garden flower, and am happy with taking the chance.  They have grown rather tall, and the wood trellis behind them has been helpful for support.

 I would like to encourage new gardeners to grow an annual ornamental, such as a flower, in some unplanted space in the plot.  Flowers are attractive, not only to people but to pollinating insects as well.  Tall flowers like Bachelor's Button can also act as a border; mine mark the entrance to my plot.  I would also rather use extra space in the garden for an attractive annual than risk letting it go to weeds.

At home, I am also growing Johnny Jump-Ups (not shown here), a variety of viola that is another classic garden flower.

Onto the harvest!

As I mentioned, I am bracing myself for a deluge of tomatillos in the coming weeks; however, many fruits and vegetables are already ripe for the picking.  I have so far harvested zucchini, cherry tomatoes, basil, eggplant, and fava beans for roasted summer vegetables with pasta.
Ripe Mexico Midget cherry tomatoes contrast nicely with the plant's foliage.  If you happen to pick a bunch of cherry tomatoes only to find that a few are still green-to-yellow, you will find that these underripe casualties are still fine for roasting along with their redder vinemates.
Bell peppers.

I am already getting full-sized bell peppers, the
earliest I have ever had them come in.  I am doing
something special for them this year (see below).

Udumalapet eggplant.
This variety is vertically striped yellow and purple.
This is my first year growing them and I am
excited to see if they taste as nice as they look.
One reason for my early success with tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers this year is my use of black landscape plastic.  When I decided to grow eggplant and peppers, two notoriously tricky crops in Zone 4 and above, I did some research online and in the gardening manual available at the official EHCG website.  I found that many gardeners in zones with short summers use black plastic to warm the soil before planting these fussy plants.  After putting the starts in the ground, I left the black plastic over the soil to keep the roots warm.  Although I will admit that this strategy sounds a little strange, I was able to successfully move my transplants into the garden earlier with this technique, and the produce I have already harvested is proof enough for me.  As an added bonus, the black plastic allows absolutely no weed growth around my precious tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers.  The only issue I've found is that I have to be very careful with watering.  It is a little tricky to water only the base of the plant while avoiding splashing it all over the plastic, which would be a waste.    

Other gems of the summer bounty are getting ready to make their debuts.  My green beans are several feet tall.  I am growing these just a foot away from my broomcorn and winter squash, hoping for some approximation of a "three sisters" effect.

French climbing bean, almost ready to flower.
Waltham butternut squash and spaghetti squash.  
I planted these two close enough that the long vines 
are now too interwoven to easily tell them apart.  
The fruits, however, have very distinct shapes.  
The small butternut (left) is beginning to take on 
a pear shape, while the spaghetti (right) is straighter.

You may be wondering, where is the corn?  "Three sisters" describes a strategy whereby beans, squash, and corn are planted together to take advantage of specific strengths of each crop, and in turn providing defense or support to the other "sisters" in the planting.  My climbing beans are natural nitrogen-fixers; nitrogen is required for plant growth, one of the hallowed N-P-K macronutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in order).  Squashes are heavy feeders, thriving on the nitrogen-enriched soil.  As you can see in the photo of my squash, these crops cover exposed ground (and anything else) really well, and can be used to prevent weed growth around sensitive crops.

Broomcorn.  I planted the "Mixed Broomcorn" available from Seed Saver's Exchange, which will (hopefully) encompass several colors of sorghum for a smashing fall display.  Note the winter squash vines around the base of the corn, as this is my weed management strategy for this part of my plot.  
Typically, the beans would grow up the corn instead of the netting in the above picture.  However, I have split my sisters up a bit, and am growing broomcorn separately.  If you are not familiar with broomcorn, it is actually a member of the grass family (sorghum).  Broomcorn is so-named because the fully-matured sorghum can be tied together, dried out, and used as a broom.  Brooms in the United States were made this way from the 19th century onward, replaced in our lifetimes by more modern, synthetic materials.  I'm not sure how well I could fashion a broom myself from broomcorn, and am planning to use this as a fall display.

While I'm on the subject of corn, please take a moment to enjoy this row of corn exhibited (with permission) by a fellow EHCG gardener.  In addition to the photo, this gardener shared with me a RAW ear of bicolor sweet corn, picked right from the plant, that was one of the most amazing things I've ever tasted.  I am growing sweet corn at home myself, and hope to repeat the experience soon.

Sweet corn.
I will also share this snapshot of yet another gardener in her plot at EHCG, watering the cucumbers on a hot day.  Looking after everything in the garden from week to week, from the lows of April to the highs of July, can be taxing, and it's nice to see fellow gardeners putting time and energy into their plots rain or shine.

 I have one more curiosity to share with you: ground cherries.  These plants are akin to low-growing tomatillos, but the fruit that emerges from the husk is sweet and yellow, not green.  Given the culture conditions for ground cherries, they are easier to grown and higher-yielding than many other dessert fruits produced by small gardens.  If you haven't tried ground cherries, consider picking up a bag at the farmer's market some time this summer.  If you fall in love, you can easily grow them next year.

Ground cherries.  I am growing the Loewen family heirloom ground cherry available from Seed Savers Exchange.  I am not sure how this compares to other ground cherries, and will keep an eye out for them at the farmer's market to do a side-by-side taste test.  Note: these fruits are ripe when the husk falls from the plant.
In three months, this will become palak paneer.
One final note: it's time to get serious about fall crops!  While the recent heat wave may suggest otherwise, fall is coming whether we like it or not. Every year I wait until it "feels like fall" and get burned.  This year, I am starting my fall crops earlier than all of my neighbors, and will see just how early these can be put in the ground successfully.  To the right is a row of spinach sprouts, emerging from the dry ground despite the recent hot weather.  Carrot and beet sprouts have emerged as well, along with broccoli.  Whether you start your fall crops on the early side or the late, it's a good idea to at least have a plan this late in the year, or your 2013 gardening season will abruptly end by the time you are pulling out dead annuals after the first frost.

That's about all I have to say about gardening at EHCG today.  Wear sunscreen and keep your skin protected!  Harvest your produce frequently!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

After a long wait, an update...

My apologies to anyone who has been waiting for an update for this blog.  It has been a few weeks since my last post, and with summer in full swing I realized that I just couldn't put it off any longer.

I was particularly inspired by a photo that was passed on to me by the registrar (Gretel) of one of our gardeners showing off his fresh batch of strawberry jam.
Paul Nason's strawberry jam.  Paul is a gardener at University Houses.

The strawberry harvest is long over, and now the raspberries are making their appearance across the gardens.  I harvested raspberries from my own plot for the first time this year last Sunday; they made an excellent sauce for dessert crepes later that night.

I hope that your gardens are all doing very well.  As Gretel reminds us in her emails, the hot weather is doing wonders for our summer crops.  I have harvested around ten zucchini so far, with a commitment to not let any summer squash grow into monsters.  A more apt description may be baseball bats.  As the season progresses, please keep in mind that many vegetables are better harvested when they are still small--summer squash, eggplant--and that flavor and texture can be lost when the fruit is allowed to mature.  Green tomatoes are popping up everywhere, and some plots are already featuring ripe red cherry tomatoes.  The few gardeners growing corn already are hand-pollinating, and my own broomcorn is taller than I am.  If you would like to have your summer vegetable wealth featured in the blog, please email with your photos!

Now is the time to plant a late crop of snap beans if you have any room left; the adventurous among us have even begun sowing fall crops from seed.  I harvested my garlic this past weekend, and in its place have planted broccoli, spinach, arugula, carrots, and beets.  I tend to plant my crops a little earlier than everyone else, but for me the gamble is just insurance for the harvest.  If my carrots turn out wimpy in the hot weather, I'll simply replant in two weeks and hope for the best.

Remember to keep your gardens well-harvested.  Fruits and vegetables left overripe in the garden tend to attract pests, including rodents, birds, insects, and decomposers.  It is also a little sad to walk through the gardens and see beautiful tomatoes going to waste.  If you have trouble keeping up with the summer's bounty, please share the wealth by depositing extra produce in the donation bins by the tool shed.  These are collected on Wednesday and Saturday mornings to be distributed by the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry.

I will write another post this weekend after taking a few photos of the summer bounty around the garden.  Enjoy your week, and remember to wear sunscreen and keep hydrated while you work in the gardens.