veggies


The garden, and gardening tasks, have definitely moved into a new phase during the past week.  Since writing my last post, I have harvested a pound of string beans and 2 pounds of squash.  Plus about a pound of cabbage and 2 cups of basil.  Oh, and 1 small yellow pepper, one jalapeno, and a scallion.  Plus a bunch of those little red onions, purplette, about twenty the size of a dime.  Still manageable, but I fear the worst.  Since Friday, the garden has required daily harvesting.  It’s amazing how quickly both green beans and squash can go from being not quite big enough to way too big.  Today I went out early, before the worst of the heat started, and after dinner.  In that time several squash went from too small, to just right, about 6-7 inches long.  You can let everything go for a day or two, but you will start to get beans and squash that are way too big.  Some stuff holds well in the garden, such as peppers and all the root vegetables.  But the beans, cukes, and squash need daily vigilance.

This summer I have made a commitment to myself to use my produce, give it away, or compost it.  Tonight while prepping the beans for a delicious string bean and carrot salad, I tossed several overgrown and too small beans straight into the compost bowl.  You have to harvest too large beans, or they will slow the production of your plants.  But you don’t have to eat them.  Last night while thinking about starting the Fall garden (not time yet, but soon), I read in The New Organic Grower, by Eliot Coleman, that bush beans are easier, and quicker, to harvest than pole beans, and I completely agree.  I tried to grow pole beans for a couple of summers, and found them completely annoying to harvest. With pole beans you have to keep going up and down, but with bush beans you just get down and work the patch, without the calisthetics.  The string bean and carrot salad that I made tonight, roughly based on a recipe from Soup makes the Meal, by…, used up all the beans, the yellowish pepper, and the scallion.  I steamed the beans, shredded 2 carrots from the fridge, chopped up the pepper and scallion, and then made a quick honey mustard vinagrette (with Dijon and cider vinegar).  I’ve been mashing a garlic clove into a paste for my vinagrettes lately, I think it adds a nice pungency.  Now I just have to figure out what to do with the squash.

While out in the garden getting parsley for the salad, I found a caterpillar!  It was on the parsley and teeny.  We’ve been observing the black swallowtails around the yard for a few weeks.  Not a lot, which is too bad.  I definitely noticed about 2 years ago that the butterfly population crashed.  I have several butterfly bushes and they used to be swarmed with butterflies all summer.  Not anymore.  Well, we’ll give this one a bit of protection from predators, at least.  In my parsley post I mentioned that we lost a caterpillar to drowning last summer, so this was a concern for me.  My solution was to use a bottle with a small mouth for the parsley, like a bud vase.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.

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My summer squash are starting to get big, and it’s making me nervous.  In my garden, squash get killed by squash vine borers almost every year.  It drives me crazy because summer squash overproduction is a cliché of the vegetable garden, yet I’m lucky if I get one or two a plant.  Two years ago I thought I had solved the problem when I discovered the trick of putting aluminum foil as a mulch around the base of the plants.  Supposedly the foil confuses the squash vine bugs from laying their eggs.  The borer is the larva and it burrows into your squash vines and kills them from within.  Apparently the larva then bury themselves in your soil, then pupate in the spring and plant more eggs on your plants.  So unless you actually defeat the life cycle of this bug on your own property it will keep coming back, and you will never get enough summer squash.  The three ways you can protect your summer squash is by preventing the bugs from laying their eggs, preventing any eggs that are laid from hatching, and killing any borers that do manage to infest your plants if any do hatch and bore into your plants before they go back into your soil.  This is serious pest prevention work.

I’ve been trying for several years to outwit them and this past winter I went on a serious search for a remedy.  The foil seemed to work well 2 years ago because only one plant got it.  But I must not have deal with the borer from that plant, because the borer got all of my plants last year.  Come to think of it, I don’t know that I killed those borers before it got back into the soil.  I didn’t really understand the life cycle of this pest until my intensive research on it this winter.  I’m on a mission, now, I am fed up!  I’m taking my squash growing game to a new level.  The technique I decided to try this year is insecticidal soap.  I’m going to spray the squash vine with insecticidal soap on a weekly basis, and hope to kill the eggs before they hatch.  I don’t know how well I’m going to stay on top off it.  With the rain so unpredictable these days, it’s hard to know when the best time to do it is.  The soap I’m using is approved for organic gardens, but this does bring up a point about pest management.  Sometimes a pest is so difficult to deal with via organic methods that you need to have some kind of pesticides.  In agriculture they call it “integrated pest management”.  Basically they try to defeat pest problems before they begin, and only when the pest problem because unmanageable do they resort to pesticides.  In the small home vegetable garden, it’s easier to manage pests organically.  There aren’t that many bugs per plant and you can pick them off, or just wait for the beneficial insects to move in.

If you haven’t planted squash yet, there’s still time.  The best squash harvest I ever got was when I planted them really late, in August for a September/ October harvest.  A lot of summer squash take about 50 days to reach maturity.  That’s just 8 weeks.  Our weather can stay quite mild here until October, so if you plant at the end of July or beginning of August, you till have time for a harvest.  Another plus is that the dreaded vine borer usually only has one life cycle per year in this region, so by planting late you could possibly avoid this pest altogether.  I’m also trying another squash trick this year that I read about on Vegetable Gardening.  Since squash need a lot of water, the author of this article buries empty gallon sized pots in her squash hills in order to be able to water them well and deeply.  Steve Solomon has a tip similar to this which he calls fertigation (p. 153 in his book Gardening When It Counts)  He takes a bucket, puts a little hole in the bottom, then fills it with manure or compost tea, and sets it next to a plant and lets it drain out.  I figure I could add compost tea, or Seaweed extract to the pots I have set next to my squash (and cukes).  I’ve also planted several kinds of summer squash this year, partly thinking that one might be more attractive to the borers than the others and could act as a pest magnet.  One thing is for sure, I am going to be ruthless this year, and if the borer gets into one of my plants I’m going to rip it out right away and squash the heck out of the borer.  Seems fair, doesn’t it?

When I was a kid, we never ate chard.  But while working on a fishing boat owned by the Moonies (long story), I was introduced to this delicious green.  It’s such a beautiful vegetable, especially red chard, that when I finally started vegetable gardening, I had to try it.  Unfortunately, for some reason, I couldn’t get the red variety to grow.  Oh, it would grow, sort of, but never the glorious bunches shown in all the catalogues and vegetable gardening books.  So even though I have a decent plot, I’d find myself buying swiss chard at the market.  Then a few years ago the store started carrying a white stemmed green chard that always looked way better than the red chard, and I thought I might be able to figure out what variety it was and grow it.  And I did, and I have been having amazing success with chard ever since.  This vigorous variety is Fordhook Giant, an oldie but goodie. I usually harvest the outer leaves regularly throughout the growing season, and it just keeps growing and growing, from early spring until after the first frost of fall.  I’ve read that in more mild climates it will grow all through the winter, and I wonder if with some protection I could keep it going.

I’ve been starting my chard indoors in February, with my onions and lettuce, to get the earliest jump on the season.  However, last fall while experimenting with my cold frame, I planted swiss chard seeds.  They never germinated and I forgot all about them.  Then in early March, while checking things out, I noticed the chard growing.  At first I thought, what the heck is that and how did it get there?  But then my creaky middle-aged brain finally kicked in and a vague recollection of planting chard seeds appeared.  I continued to plant my planned patch this spring, but let those fall sown plants grow.  I have to say, they are bigger and more vigorous than the ones I started indoors.  I also found a couple of “spontaneously generated” chard plants in my other bed.  Did I plant them or are they self-sown?  We will never know, but they, too are very strong.  So I think that chard is probably better directly sown in the soil, although I did do that my first year growing Fordhook Giant, and the reverse seemed to be true.  Maybe the answer is that chard seeds like to sit in the soil all winter, and then germinate?  That seems like leaving your chard production up to a lot of chance, and I don’t know if I have the courage for that.  If I tried that system, I’d probably still start them indoors to hedge my bets, and then wind up with even more chard than I have now, (which is 20 plants).  DH says, do we really need that much chard?  Maybe not, but I’m sure my friends and family will be happy in about a month or two.

The biggest problem I have with chard is those pernicious leaf miners.  They have destroyed a lot of lovely leaves with their tunnels.  I bought some floating row covers this year, thinking I would cover my plants to protect them from this pest, but when it came down to it I’d rather see the plants than the covers, and take my chances with the bugs.  I read somewhere that the best way to defeat the leaf miners (other than row covers) is to be really vigilant about removing infested leaves, and throwing them out in the garbage (not composting).  I’d hate to jinx myself, but that’s what I’ve been doing this year and it seems to be working.  I just had my first big harvest this week, and it was delicious.  I cooked it with onions and garlic in olive oil, and then threw in some capers and chicken broth at the end and served it over pasta with some parmesan.   I like it to be completely wilted because the leaves can sometimes be a bit bitter, but that’s tamed if you cook it thoroughly.  Last year I discovered that it is especially good if you with shitakes, but it is also good just cooked with garlic and oil.  For anyone who wants to read even more about this leafy green, I recommend the following post on the blog, In My Kitchen Garden, which has pretty much everything you need to know about chard.

http://inmykitchengarden.blogspot.com/2007/09/how-to-grow-swiss-chard-from-seed-why.html

Finally, when harvesting the chard I use the same technique I talked about in my broccoli raab post.  I harvest the leaves in the morning and stand them up in a bowl of water.  They will keep this way for at least 3 days, maybe more, and instead of languishing in the fridge, will be an active reminder for you to cook it.

What kind of monster do you think I am?  After researching catapults this evening with my 9 year old, the title of this post does sound like a dish that would be served at a European medieval banquet.  The idea of braised lettuce reared it’s ugly head again after I harvested all of my lettuce because of the threat of hot weather.  There was no way we’d be able to eat all of it as salads before it went bad.  So, I mentioned it to my Mom this morning and she told me that her Dad had made braised lettuce with peas, once, years ago, but the flavor was so amazing she’s never forgotten it.  I then turned to the helpful internet, first epicurious, and then a general google search for inspiration.  I had some aging leeks, so I sautéed them in oil and butter, then added the lettuces, 2 bibbs, quartered, plus some chicken broth, and cooked coverede at a low heat for about 20 minutes.  Even though I wasn’t convinced about the peas, I added them (frozen) at the end of cooking.  And the results?  Eh.  The first few bites were good, but then, I was quite hungry.  And they went well with the quick veal stroganoff I made to accompany it.  But after it sat on the plate for a while it lost something.  I think the lettuces might have started bolting before I picked them, and so the centers were bitter.  It definitely did not make me want to repeat the experiment.

This experience has reminded me of some of the challenges of learning how to be a good kitchen gardener.  The obvious one is learning how to plant so you have the right amount of produce that you like at the right time.  But honestly I think there will always be surpluses.  I’ve had some other “failed successes” over the years, and the failure is usually due to a kitchen failure  (i.e. my screw up).  Last year I tried snow peas, since I’ve found regular peas to be too much trouble, and take up too much room, for too long, for what you get.  I had a bumper crop.  However, I totally messed up cooking them.  I made a huge batch of shrimp with snow peas, but didn’t realize that you have to string the pods.  Yeah.  Disgusting.  The year before that I had a bumper crop of these beautiful Japanese eggplant, Fairy Tale.  But I had heard that you don’t need to salt Japanese eggplant to get rid of their bitterness, so I didn’t.  Mistake.  The sad thing is that I was totally turned off to both of these veggies because of my kitchen errors. I haven’t given up trying new stuff, although I have given up on snow peas and eggplant.  It’ll be a while before I try those again.

Finally I have to give all of you bird lovers out there an update on how our little darlings are doing.  They are great!  They’re getting their “big boy” feathers in, their wing and tail feathers are coming in, too, and they look like real birds now.  I tried to sneak over from the other side, off the patio, to get a shot, and got totally dive bombed by one of the parents.  Plus the little guys are so alert, they saw me coming and hunkered down into their nest for protection.  The best views of them are still from our sunroom window.  They are starting to stretch their wings and are constantly grooming themselves (they look itchy).  They are getting crowded in that nest too, I am primarily worried about one of them falling out.  Fortunately the nest is in a protected area, so the dog can’t get them if they do.  You’ve got to figure that they will be learning to fly by the end of the week.  It’s so exciting!

Anybody out there ever catch the t.v. show Manic Organic?  It was on cable, I think in the Fall 2008, I can’t remember which station.  Anyway, it was an innovative and highly enjoyable program.   In it, an organic market gardener from Ontario, Antony John, takes you, in one half hour, from the planting, to the growing, to the harvesting, and finally the cooking and eating of various vegetables.  I had never seen anything like it before (nor since): a gardening show that brings you all the way from the seed to the plate.  Really, a combination gardening and cooking show.  Unfortunately, I think they only made one season of it.  I have to say though, that watching it was highly influential in how I think about kitchen gardening.  The Manic Organic helped me shift how I think about my garden planning, from just planting veggies and then figuring out what to make with them, to actually thinking about what I’d like to eat, and then planning the garden that would deliver the ingredients for those dishes.

Every year I like to try growing something I have never grown before, and this spring (actually this winter while pouring over seed catalogues), I decided to try broccoli raab.  Now I don’t eat it myself, ever since my first pregnancy I have had an aversion to broccoli.  But my husband likes it, he always orders pasta with broccoli raab and sausage, so I figured I’d give it a try.  It’s an early spring (and fall) vegetable, so I started the seeds when I did my lettuce, onions, and cabbage.  Since I was new to it, I just started one 3 inch square pot of them.  It grew pretty quickly, and about 2 months ago I planted it into my cold frame, about 12 seedlings directly out of the one pot into a space about 1’x2’.  At the same time I planted about the same area with broccoli raab seeds.  About 2 weeks ago one of the plants started to form the little florets, so I harvested at, and a couple more came in the following week.  Not enough to make a meal so I stashed them in the fridge.  Then last week they all seemed to be coming into bud, and since I needed the space (and quite frankly they were blocking my cabbage, which I actually do like to eat) I decided to harvest them all.  Interestingly enough, the plants I had grown directly from seed were about 1/3 of the size of the ones started indoors, but they were budding up as well.

One of the techniques I’ve found to be incredibly useful for storing greens before cooking is to put them in a big bowl of water, making sure that the stems are submerged (like cut flowers).  This works great with chard and lettuce, I have kept them both looking good on the countertop for at least 2 days after harvesting.  It works especially well if you are harvesting in the morning (when they are at their peak) to cook that evening.  Plus, it takes a lot less time when you are in the middle of gardening to just throw them in a bowl of water in the kitchen and run back out into the garden, then washing and refrigerating.  The broccoli raab really responded well to this treatment, they actually continued to grow.  And the comparison between those on the counter and those in the fridge?  No contest.  So a full 2 ½ days after harvest, I trimmed them up and sautéed them in a pan with sliced garlic and olive oil.  DH said they were delicious, and I like to think he would be honest with me.  The pasta with broccoli raab and sausage didn’t happen, but having the broccoli raab right there on the counter made sure that I didn’t forget to cook them at all (I needed the bowl for something else).  If I’d left them in the garden I’m sure they would have wound up just going to flower.

On Mother’s Day, after I had harvested this beauty as a gift for my mother, my husband said he wanted to take a picture of it on his phone so he could “brag about Mommy’s garden to his buddies at work”.  My 5-year-old piped up, “Daddy, it’s not nice to brag”.  Indeed.  Well, I’m not writing this post to brag (well, maybe a little), but I am quite proud of my lettuce this spring.  I thought I’d share some discoveries I have made in my effort to grow big heads of lettuce.  During my first couple of years gardening I planted lettuce seeds as early as I could (when the soil finally thawed) and got some decent leaf lettuce, although certainly nothing to brag about.  Those early harvests gave me a taste for homegrown lettuce, which is, like other veggies from the home garden, nothing like lettuce from the supermarket.  Freshly picked just before eating, it actually glows in the salad bowl.  Sadly, though, with our short springs the lettuce would not last long before bolting (sending up a flower stalk and turning bitter).

Two winters ago, I became envious of all the gorgeous heads of lettuce shown in my kitchen gardening books.  How do they do that, I exclaimed to my husband, how can they possibly get such gorgeous lettuces in such a short growing season?  I became determined to get heads of lettuce in my own garden, if only to say I could do it.  I had also just gotten my first taste of homegrown onions, started by seed directly in the garden the previous spring, pathetically small (but delicious nonetheless!).   After some serious study I discovered that the only way to get good onions to grow from seed was to start them very early indoors, in January or February.  While planting the onion seed (a small red called Purplette, which I highly recommend), I decided to start some lettuce seed at the same time.  Now it was no small amount of work, first starting the seed and then transplanting them into individual pots, and then finally into the garden.  It paid off pretty well, although still not the great glowing heads I was coveting.  Back to the books, and some more careful reading.  To grow great heads of lettuce, I learned, you have to give them one square foot each, and honestly, I’m beginning to think more space would be even better.

Thinking back on what I’ve read, I should also have made succession plantings, because all of my lettuce is ready at the same time and we have way more than we can possibly eat (especially since my kids won’t touch it and my husband is never home for dinner during the week).  Part of me doesn’t want to pick it, either, because it is pretty and harvestings leaves big gaps in my planting scheme.  I am living in fear of bolting, though, so I have started giving it away, another benefit of the veggie garden.  I’m also starting to understand all those recipes for braised lettuce and lettuce soup, although I haven’t gotten there yet.  However, I’m thinking that the next time the weather report says it’s going to hit the high 80’s, I may just pick it all and then figure out what to do with it.  In working on this post, too, I did some research on bolting and found the blog, Veggie Gardening Tips.  Using some of Kenny’s ideas, I’m going to keep some perspective on it.  Even if this month stays cool, I think the day length will do me in.  I may try to figure out the date when that will happen, but the calculation may be beyond me.

Tonight I am so annoyed at myself.  Over the past two days we’ve been having the worst wind.  Last week, when it was beautiful in the 70’s, I started hardening off my tomato seedlings.  I’ve had them growing under lights in the basement for about 6 weeks, and when I went down there on Monday, they were all pressed up against the lights.  So I whisked them up to my front stoop, which has a Northeast exposure.  They straightened out, and toughened up, and were doing great when this wind started to gust about.  I thought about bringing them in, but they were doing so well, and I thought maybe the wind would be good for them (duh), so I left them out.  They were fine yesterday, but I guess it got colder last night than I realized, and the wind had dried them out, so when I went out this morning they were wilted, and somewhat frizzled.  I watered them well, and they’ve recovered somewhat, but they’ve obviously had quite a shock.  I checked the weather report and it’s supposed to go down to the 30’s tonight.  The weather in this area is so crazy!  Last Sunday it was in the high 80’s.  It’s May, for crying out loud.  They are now warming up in my kitchen.  I think most of them will make it, tomatoes are very tough.  However, I may have lost a tomatillo (which I’ve never grown before).

This experience just goes to show what a challenge the whole hardening off process is.  It’s pretty easy to start plants indoors, if you have the right equipment.  But then when it’s time to get them out of the house into the garden, you are at the mercy of the vagaries of the weather and lapses in your own judgement.  The first year I started plants indoors I had read about hardening off.  But I thought, oh come on, what’s the big deal and just took them out of the house and popped them in the soil.  They all promptly died.  That pretty much taught me an important lesson.  I now harden off all my seedlings, and have had some amazing successes, especially with a cold frame in the early spring.  But tomatoes, and other warm weather plants (peppers, zinnias) still pose a great challenge for me.  I always somehow manage to fry them somewhat, either from too much sun, too little water, or too much water (torrential rainstorms).  One of my main problems is that I am too busy at this time of year to be consistent in moving trays of plants in and out of the house, and around the yard to get gradually greater and greater exposure.  Fortunately some hardening off, however inept, is still better than none.  Most of the plants recover and go on to grow better than if I started them straight from seed in the garden.

Faced with these challenges, I’ve been thinking about how to scale back on the indoor seed starting.  On Saturday I was at the nursery (in a thunderstorm) and was very impressed with the number of varieties of tomatoes, all sorts of heirlooms, such as Brandywine and Green Zebra, plus other interesting varieties.  I start seeds indoors primarily because there are some great varieties of vegetables and flowers that you can only get as seeds from a catalogue.  I love zinnias, but have a terrible powdery mildew problem.  There is one variety that is more resistant to powdery mildew than most, Benary’s Giant Series.  But if you start zinnias after the last frost here you won’t get flowers until August.  There are other flowers that you will never see in a nursery that are simply amazing, such as Asarina scandens, which is a lovely delicate vine with gorgeous bell shaped blue flowers.  See it here   http://www.finegardening.com/plantguide/asarina-scandens-figwort-creeping-snapdragon.aspx.  I’ve been reading up on a seed starting technique that is new to me, winter sowing.  Dave’s Garden has a ton of info on it, such as this link. http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/585/ I thought about it this past winter, but I didn’t plan early enough for it, and didn’t have the right supplies or mind set.  I may also go back to buying tomato starts from the nursery.  But you never know, those seed catalogues in December and January are pretty appealing, and once you’ve bought your tomato seeds, what can you do?

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