Feb 05

Home Grown Vegetables

December; The soil temperature has dropped below fifty degrees and the micro-organisms are going into hibernation. That is my cue to put the tools away and look back on the growing season for lessons learned that will make next years gardening easier and more enjoyable.

Did you know that a woodchuck is nothing more than a fat squirrel, capable of climbing? I replaced my worn and rusted chicken wire fence around the vegetable garden with a taller more sturdy rabbit guard. It did a great job keeping the rabbits out, but it also made it easier for the woodchuck to climb in. All those years of making sure they couldn’t dig under the fence, and they were going over the top.

I never did determine the life cycle of an indeterminate tomato, but for this experiment I learned that instead of letting it grow up; I should have let it grow out. The tomato plant is a vine. We train it to grow vertical in order to keep the fruit clean. My tomato stakes topped out at six feet so I tied the vines together as self supporting bundles. That got me to eight feet after which they made a u-turn and the bed got ugly.

Lesson learned; grow tomatoes on a ten foot trellis, no; let tomato vines meander along the garden bed, no; top the plant at seven feet and avoid problems, yes.

Speaking of tying, hand surgery in July prevented me from tying up the dahlias; dahlias need to be tied up.

Many people had to pull their tomato plants because of blight, yet I had minimal damage and was picking tomatoes up to the killing frost. I sprayed the plants and soil every week with my dish detergent and ammonia solution; and I believe that solution, along with good sanitization practices prevented the problem. Lesson learned; keep the garden beds clean.

When I was weeding two years ago and a chipmunk climbed a lily next to me to eat the flower buds, I knew that détente was over. Last year, I experimented with repellents and had some success. The reality is that when an animal is hungry they will eat anything, even when it has a foul taste.

This year I declared war on both the chipmunks and woodchucks (plural yes, I had three). Following State guidelines, I waited for them to become a nuisance; one night of gorging on the entire vegetable garden. Leaving out the details, let’s just say that; a five gallon bucket half filled with water topped with sunflower seeds works; woodchucks do have an addiction for bubble gum; and holes only have to be dug one shovel full deep.

All those years of questioning my gardening skills for flowers that did not bloom like the plants in the magazine photographs. Years of wondering why my harvests were nowhere near what was promised in the seed catalogs. Suddenly, with just one environmental correction, I’m Mr. Greenjeans. Lesson learned, sometimes you have to be the bad guy.  

December; At the end of the season, just before I open the new seed catalogs and start working on next years’ garden, I like to check my notes and reflect on the season and lessons learned.

Three feet of snow on the ground in February 2011 did not delay the start of the growing season. Heavy rainfall melted the snow, exposing the raised beds that heated up in time for the usual March sowing of peas. Now the ten inches of snow that fell after the sowing was something I had to work around.

People can argue all they want about global warming being caused by industrialization or just the natural planet climate cycle change. What I know is that I am sowing seeds earlier and harvesting crops a lot later in the season than I did a decade ago. Next year I will increase the amount of my second crop of cool season vegetables.

There was a direct correlation between the large amount of acorns harvested in 2010 and the chipmunk population explosion the following summer. The homesteaders in my yard emptied the pea pods and ate most of the bean, winter squash and lily blossoms.

There was also a synergistic relationship between the chipmunks and the woodchuck. The chipmunks tore my plastic wall of invisibility giving the woodchuck a clear view of the vegetables behind it. Minus the stealth, the rusted chicken wire fence was easily broken by the woodchuck and the garden became the victim.

Applying rodent repellents and predator urine after the fact was a case of too little too late. The few vegetables that did survive the chipmunk food fest were eaten by the woodchuck. Clearly the adage – one for the mouse, one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow, did not apply to them. Next year the garden gets a new sturdier fence and the opaque plastic wall of invisibility will be taller.

One plant that came out untouched by ravenous wildlife, insects or disease was the garlic. A little research identified garlic as a natural antibiotic used to treat nose, ear, chest and throat infections and a treatment for colds and flu. I don’t understand how our ancestors made the leap from viral infection to vampire repellent but there is a lesson here and I am braiding some necklaces.

The availability of water was not an issue this year. The past few years, watering bans were in effect in a number of communities and in anticipation of another ban this year I made two rain barrels to capture the runoff from my roof. Who knew that total rainfall would be nine inches above normal? I quickly learned that rainfall from a single storm can overflow the barrels and ended up leaving the valves partially open.

This lesson learned about investing time and money to minimize the impact of an event, in this case a watering ban, only to have the opposite happen resonated with me and I already applied it by purchased a snow blower.

July 10 – Last Call

July is a transition month. Cool weather crops like broccoli, peas and lettuce have been harvested, creating space to sow seeds for a fall harvest. I like to plant turnip and rutabaga along with more bush beans and lettuce. The blueberries are already being picked, the raspberries are right behind them and the daylilies are blooming like crazy. Just about everything that is going to happen in the flower beds has. The only thing to look forward to now is in the vegetable garden.

With that sad thought in mind, July is also the latest month of the growing season to apply granular or slow release fertilizer around perennials or tender bulbs. It is hard to believe but the plants are already preparing for next year. As August and the cooler nighttime temperatures approach, they stop producing new leaves and stems and begin to store energy in their roots. This year’s new grow hardens in order to withstand the cold winter temperatures.

Remember those light green stems at the end of the branches back in April? They were so soft that you could wrap them around your finger without breaking them. Now they are dark green or brown and they snap under a little pressure. That is what you want at the end of the season, strong hard growth.

Fertilizer applied now will stimulate new growth that will not have enough time to harden. Translation; you will have a lot of dead branches and fewer blooms next spring. We call that winter kill. That is what you do not want.

This problem will be even more pronounced on your tender bulbs like dahlias, calla, and canna; any plant that you dig up in the fall. They will retain too much moisture and will rot in storage. If you purchase new bulbs every year this probably does not bother you; but if you grew a particular plant that you want to save and propagate next year, then you need to hold back on the fertilizer.

One of my favorite vegetable is garlic. Snickering aside, nothing seems bothers it; it is disease free and the insects and wildlife give it a wide berth. Garlic is planted in the fall and the cloves overwinter in the frozen soil; so we have to grow the stiff neck varieties in this region; and I think that is great because it gives me two harvests. At the end of the month I will make my second harvest; pulling the plants, selecting the bulbs that I will replant in October, sharing some with my family and neighbors, and curing he rest for winter storage.

The first harvest though is the one I most look forward to. I am talking about the scapes at the end of the flower stock. These scapes can be cooked and served as a side dish; but I prefer to puree it with olive oil and grated Parmesan or Romano cheese to make a pesto. Combine the pesto with sun dried tomatoes and chicken; serve it over pasta and once you taste it you will, well, ah, let’s just say that you will put garlic on your planting list.

Winter hardy hard neck

Garlic scapes ready for harvest

The quantity and variety of vegetables available at the supermarkets today is off the chart. Asparagus used to be a seasonal favorite in the spring, selling out after just a few weeks and leaving us waiting for the next year’s harvest. Now it is shipped in from all over the world and available year round.

So, given the availability and convenience why bother growing our own vegetables? Well, ignoring all of the health benefits, cost savings, quantity of harvest, neighborhood bragging rights, and just plain fun; I have two reasons, taste and variety.

Did you ever notice that sweet corn that isn’t cooked as soon as you take it home from the market tastes like a potato? That is because the plant cells in the corn are still alive and hungry. Their food source is sugar, created in the process of photosynthesis. When the ear of corn was on the plant sugar was always available. Once the ear was picked, the only sugar available was in the cornels; so they ate it; converting the sugar to starch.

The difference between sugar and starch is one molecule of oxygen. In a couple of days, the great fresh picked taste of any vegetable becomes just an okay flavor. So, how many days does it take fresh vegetables to arrive from California? Chile? China? Exactly!

On any given day at the supermarket you might find three different kinds of tomatoes, a standard, plum and cherry; and two types of beans green and yellow. There are lots of greens though; one kale, one escarole, one chard, one bok choy. That isn’t variety. There are thousands of varieties of tomatoes grown worldwide; many of them have over the top flavor that can turn a turkey sandwich into a Panini. Why would you limit your choice to a couple of dozen when there are thousands of vegetables you could grow from seed.

The Garden – My first vegetable garden 34 years ago was smaller than my shed and was a dismal failure, producing only a softball sized butternut squash. My source of gardening knowledge was one television show with a companion book, and my credo was, “If I can’t eat it I don’t grow it.”

Then, the variety of catalog seed available to the home gardener numbered in the hundreds, and heirloom seeds were smuggled via folded paper napkins along with the message; “Mr. Growsitall gave us some vegetables, they were delicious I saved the seeds for you; don’t tell him!”

Today, my garden is a whole lot bigger and vegetable plants have spilled into the flower beds. There are too many gardening shows on television, and I own more books on the subject than the library.

There is a worldwide effort to acquire and preserve all of the different variety of seeds as a hedge against some future undefined environment or health issue. This effort to maintain the diversity of plants has opened the door for the home gardener to grow just about any kind and variety of plant and I am all over that. We are in the front line of this effort. They are asking us to help, I am asking, “Where were you 34 years ago?”

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