Archive for January, 2010

Let’s go to the hops…or not

I promised myself last fall that this year I would try something new and wild in the garden. Some crop never before dreamed of.

Then I looked over my finished seed orders last week and…nothing. I had some unusual colors, true. But nothing too risky, all told. So I started a roll call of things I don’t usually plant. Leeks, done that. Peanuts, done that. Cotton, failed. Tomatillos, done that. Kohlrabi, nobody likes it. Jicama, meh.

Then it hit me. Why not hops?

We’ve seen hops fields–usually on trips to other parts of the country. They’re especially prevalent on the temperate West Coast. But will they grow in the Midwest?

We’d answered that question on a trip to St. Louis for our daughter’s soccer tournament last year. As it happened, we had a lot of down time between games–enough time to get on our bikes and ride the Katy Trail over to St. Charles, Mo. There, in the back of one of the historic sites at the former state capital, was a garden. And in a corner, trained up on a trellis, were the instantly recognizable light green pinecone-like hops.

Perfect, I thought. Mike could use them in his home brew. So far, he’s mostly a kit man, but maybe a cheap supply would inspire him to branch out. And hops are quite a pretty and interesting looking vine.

Also, worldwide hops cultivation has been hurt by the climate changes attributed to global warming. In 2007, there was a hops shortage and people in Europe still talk about a general decline in quality.

But here’s the biggest reason driving my interest in hops.

Our new neighbors

This is the new view looking north from our garden. A large church recently bought our neighbor’s house, razed it, wrenched out all the trees and put in this auxiliary building, which as you see has large windows looking down on us.

To be sure, the drawings did not look like this when we went to the meeting about it. There were full-grown, leafy trees shielding us from the terrible truth. Problem: None of these trees is anywhere near full-grown yet. And in the meantime, we’ve lost one of our tall pines to the nematodes that were killing them in this area last year.

A few hops vines,  which can grow 25 feet, might just give us back some of the privacy we lost. All I’d need is for Mike to build some kind of trellis. Hmmm.

Then I started researching…and, oh, boy. What a can of worms! First, none of my usual seed catalogs carried hops, for some reason. Then I started looking online, and finally found a place that offered a packet of 50 seeds for $3.62, which seems quite reasonable. Even better, it listed them as appropriate for zones 4-8. (We’re on the south side of 5.)

But wait. Another site, called (yikes!) Growing the Hallucinogens, gave a detailed description of just what you have to do to get those seeds to germinate. It involves damp peat moss and a plastic bag in your refrigerator for 5-6 weeks, then room temperature peat moss checking every day for dampness and sprouting for another 10-21 days. At that rate, maybe we’d have hops in December.

Much better–but clearly more expensive–would be to buy the more common rhizomes, which run around $4 each.

More bad news. Some other sites and comments told me something I didn’t want to hear. Hops are apparently poisonous to dogs. If ingested, they cause an uncontrollably high fever, which can result in death if not treated early.

This is almost a deal breaker. Einstein, now 11 months old, loves to dig and play along the fence line where the hops would grow. I looked everywhere on-line, but most of the cases of dog poisoning involved them eating composted hops that had been mixed with the sweet wort that makes the fabulous home brew. Some commenters said that dogs appeared disinterested in hops on the vine, and other sites recommended stripping the first three feet of vine anyway, to prevent downy mildew.

So what to do? If we plant them, could they be fenced in some way to keep Einstein out? Or is this simply too much construction to ask Mike to do?

I guess I’ll have to think about this a little longer.

Posted by: Roxie


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There’s one last decision to make, after you’ve figured out what seeds you want to order from a seed company.

Online or snail mail?

I have not qualms about online shopping. I do it all the time. But for seeds, give me the catalogs and the snail mail any day.

First, it’s easier to do the choosing with the paper catalogs. I usually get out at least four of my favorites and spread them all out over the coffee table, so I can compare prices and varieties. Yes, I could do this online, but I’d need two big monitors and, well, we aren’t planning a system upgrade for a while.

The bigger reason to shop by paper, though, is that it foils one of the seed companys’ more annoying practices–substitution.

Oh, you didn’t know about substitution? Let’s say you want to get a new DVD player. You spend a lot of time researching the pros and cons, requirements and pricing of each brand. You read all the customer reviews, and you place your order.

But, oops, your choice was very popular. So popular that the seller has run out. So when the UPS man comes, you are surprised to find the company has sent you another brand of comparable value.

Would this be acceptable for electronics vendors? Well, it is de rigueur in the world of seed catalogs.

When we first started gardening, every catalog had a small box on the order where you could check “no substitutions.” If they ran out of your seed, you might get a note that the shipment would be late. But if you ordered early, as we always did, you’d still get it in time for planting. If you wanted to take your chances, that would be your decision.

As the years have passed, though, the “no substitute” option has begun to vanish from some catalog forms. On online order forms, it’s all but nonexistent, or counterintuitive at best.

Park Seed, for example, doesn’t have a box to check either online or on paper. But if you order on paper, you can just go rogue with a Sharpie and make your wishes known.

Online is harder. I asked a customer service operator at Park how I could request “no substitutes” online and she told me I should put the order down as a “gift” and then put “no substitutes” in the gift message.


So every year, I do it the old fashioned way, by scrawling “NO SUBSTITUTES” in big letters across the bottom, with a frowny face. (I figure they’ll be sure to read it if they sense an unhappy customer. Haven’t been wrong yet.)

Posted by: Roxie

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I’m still a little bleary-eyed from all the seed catalog reading I did this weekend. But…the 2010 garden is planned and the order has been sent. First big gardening job of the year–and possibly the most important: done and done.

Because of space considerations, we didn’t go into the fine detail of making a seed order in Mike & Roxie’s Vegetable Paradise. But as I felt myself succumbing to the glossy color photos and the siren song of catalog seed descriptions, I thought it might be useful to say a few things about how we choose our seeds.

It should surprise no one that the ad copy that describes the seeds is the last thing to look at when making your order. Just read a page or so. It’s possible to find one variety touting the absence of, say, green shoulders on a tomato, followed closely by another variety boasting of gorgeous green near the stem end. Fruits with a tendency to crack and catface have an

Cat-faced tomato

“interesting” shape and great flavor. Fruits that are tasteless have “uniform, sturdy shape that holds up to handling” and flavor “better than most.”

And when a vegetable “has to be seen to be believed?” Watch out.

But the ad copy is fun. So if you must read it, save it for last.

There are other, more important things to consider. Here’s my short list:

*Days to maturity. Usually this is the first number after the variety name. If you know roughly when you’re going to plant, you can figure about what week it will be–and what the weather will be like–when the vegs are ready. Let’s say you want to plant spinach, but the days to maturity show it won’t be ready until after Memorial Day, when the summer heat can set in. You’d be better off with a shorter days variety, since spinach does not do well in hot weather.

Usually, the catalog will specify whether the days to maturity starts when you start the seed or when you transplant it outside, but you might have to look around on the page a bit to find this.

*AAS Winner!–This phrase influences me far more than any catalog ad copy. AAS stands for All America Selection. It means that independent judges have evaluated the variety for sturdiness, flavor, disease resistance and production. The best are given the AAS label. If I’m torn between two similar varieties and one is an AAS but the other is not, I’ll most likely choose the AAS winner. It’s never disappointed me (provided it’s a plant that can be grown successfully in this climate.) Check out the AAS homepage for more info.

*Disease resistance–It’s always a good idea to look for a plant that can handle the types of diseases common to this area. Organic growing techniques are, let’s face it, not always effective against the worst of the diseases Kansas City can throw your way. For peas and vining plants, I always look for resistance to downy or powdery mildew, which can be very damaging given the right weather.

Tomatoes are especially prone to certain kinds of blights and rots.  So most catalogs will follow their tomato varieties with an alphabet soup of disease resistance. You’ll have to look around for a key to decode this. But just in general, more letters means more resistance to things like verticilium and fusarium wilts, tobacco mosaic, crown rot, nematodes and leaf spot.

*Heirloom or “open pollinated”–I go for heirloom on some things where I just want old-fashioned flavor or interesting colors. Or if I want to save the seed myself. One of the more disturbing trends in hybrid seeds is the sweetening of vegetables. Peas, carrots, beans, beets and especially corn seem to get sweeter every year. Sometimes I just want my beans to taste like beans and not like sugar. That’s usually when I go for an heirloom.

Open pollinated just means you can save your own seed if you want to, because it’s not a hybrid.

The only drawback is that some heirlooms don’t have as good a resistance to disease as the hybrids.

*USDA Organic–This label has cropped up recently in some catalogs. As far as I can tell, it means the seed was taken from organically grown plants. And this is a nice idea. But remember, “growing organic” means growing organic. It’s a technique, not a product. If you put organic seeds in the ground, then spray and fertilize them with synthetic chemicals all season, you will not end up with organic vegetables.

*Packet size–It’s impossible to know whether you’re being gouged at the checkout counter if you don’t know how many seeds are in a packet. Again, you’ll have to search around on the page to find this. Once you know how many seeds you’re getting, it’s possible to compare prices between catalogs.

There now. Go have some fun. It will be spring before you know it!

Posted by: Roxie

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Cut! Stand in!

What’s this, what’s this?

Trickery? Scandal? Stunt vegetable “doubles” in the Food Network’s recent Iron Chef America were not really from the White House garden? Can a congressional hearing be in the future?

Yes, all true–except maybe the hearing. Add one more minor disappointment to the Food Network’s highly hyped episode on which Michelle Obama made a cameo appearance. It’s been admitted that vegetables from other sources were used in the actual cooking. (Here’s a scoop from the Chicago Tribune.)


The show, a competition among celebrity chefs, was set up to spotlight the tastiness and healthiness of locally grown produce. It began with the Mrs. Obama giving the chefs the “secret ingredient:” namely anything grown in the White House garden. They were also allowed to use a variety of meat, poultry and seafood farmed within 100 miles of Washington, DC.

We saw a lot of shots of a not-at-all fall fatigued garden, with the chefs picking tomatillos and eggplants. And the next thing you know, they were chopping and blanching and “blast freezing” in Kitchen Stadium.

But it turns out there was a lag time between when the White House spots were filmed and the actual cooking at the FN’s New York studio. So the staff had to get newer, fresher produce of the type picked out at the White House shoot.

Should we feel scammed? That’s hard to say. On one hand, with the way the show was put together, it sure feels like someone was trying to put one over. But on the other, the White House garden was obviously in better shape than anyone might expect for late in the growing season. Unless I hear different, I can believe it was still producing.

Turns out the honey was the only thing actually from the garden. (They have bees! I am insanely jealous.)

It probably would have been better, though, if the Food Network had explained it at the start.

But I guess that’s show biz.

Posted by: Roxie

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Some people get all caught up in the Twilight book series, or Harry Potter. Others immerse themselves in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

My own particular brand of fantasy reading comes in the form of seed company catalogs.

Along about the first week of January, I grab my favorites–Park Seed, Shumway, Burpee, Totally Tomatoes–and lock myself up, not to be disturbed. And then I pore over the glossy color pictures  and let the words carry me to another reality. “Prolific and long-yielding, ” “vigorous, with sturdy vines,” “developed in sunny Greece!” “drought resistant,” “the most unusual variety you’ll ever grow!”

Cream Sausage tomato

And the names! Who can resist them? Cream sausage, Banana Legs, Nebraska Wedding, Black Sea Man, Rain Gauge–wait, that’s just a rain gauge for sale–Mexico Midget. And those are just the tomatoes. I’ll admit to wanting to plant Bloody Butcher just for the name alone.

I’m especially attracted to the new colors this year. Maybe it’s because I never see celebrity chef Jamie Oliver cooking with normal orange carrots or plain red tomatoes. Maybe it’s because the images of the white-outside, red-inside “watermelon” radish and purple cauliflower used on a recent Food Network show are burned into my brain.

Watermelon radish

Then again, it could be because, looking out the window right now, the only two colors are gray and white. Maybe its winter sensory deprivation at work.

All I know is, I find myself reaching for a pencil and circling item after item. Yes! to the rainbow chard. Yes! to the purple carrots. Yes! to the yellow watermelon. Never mind that I haven’t had any luck with watermelon in five years.

Of course, I’ll have to come down sometime. The garden isn’t big enough to plant everything my color-hungry eyes clap onto.

But for now, I’m happy in dreamland. Don’t bother me with practicality. Reality is for tomorrow.

Posted by: Roxie

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Super Chef dud

It was a two-hour Iron Chef America special blowout. Special location: The White House garden. Special guest: Michelle Obama. Celebrity chefs: Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and White House chef Cristeta Comerford. Celebrity judges Nigella Lawson, Jane Seymore and swimmer Natalie Coughlin.

Early on, someone said they wanted this episode to inspire Americans to cook more fresh vegetables and eat more locally produced food. To that end, they also brought in meats, seafood and poultry raised within 100 miles of Washington, DC.

What a great idea! Too bad everyone involved completely blew it.

In the first place, the White House seemed oddly detached from this event. Michelle Obama greeted the chefs briefly at the beginning of the program. And then we never saw her again. I understand why she didn’t judge her own chef on TV, but couldn’t she have stepped in at the end for a bite of the sweet potato tart made especially in her honor? Or, barring that, how about just a few more words on her own experience with the White House garden?

If the Food Network and the White House really wanted to get Americans interested in cooking and gardening, Iron Chef was the wrong show to choose anyway. This program is all about restaurant chefs and restaurant cooking. The average dish involves at least five appliances and some exotic and hard to find ingredients.  Lardo, anyone?

Not that there’s anything wrong with restaurant cooking competitions. They’re always an interesting spectacle. But I seriously doubt anyone watched with a pad and paper to make notes of recipes they might search for later. Except maybe other restaurant chefs.

But forget the inappropriateness of the Iron Chef venue. The Food Network itself is in a seriously ironic position on this whole issue. Formerly a place you could turn for cooking instruction, the FN has evolved into a channel that tells you where to buy food. You have Rachel Ray telling you where to eat on a vacation, and Guy Fieri visiting Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. You have chefs making fancy cakes and impossible dinners under pressure.

A few instructional shows still exist, sure, but they concentrate on recipes with pre-packaged ingredients. Or they’re so simple as to be insulting. And later this year, FN will roll out a show about a contest for the country’s worst cooks! See, America? Cooking’s just too hard. You’ll fail at it and we’ll all make fun of you. Leave it to the experts and continue to buy pre-packaged corporate food from our sponsors.

Ah, well.

The one bright spot was the beauty of the vegetable garden. Since the show was taped in the fall, there was still plenty of produce out there and it all looked great. I only wish our garden looked that good that late in the season.

I hope the White House tries again next year with another, better show on cooking from the vegetable garden. Since kids have been involved in the planting and harvesting, why not invite a few of them in and teach them to cook a family meal from the bounty? I’d watch.

Posted by: Roxie

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It’s next year

Can anyone appreciate ice and snow the way a gardener can?

Most people–if the television weather happy talk is any indication–are morose and crabby about the recent blizzard and its cold aftermath. The dirty slush! The shoveling! The heavy coats! Oh my!

But for us, a look out the back window at the expanse of white brings only a satisfied smile. It’s 15 degrees and there’s no chance–none–that any outdoor work can be done. The garlic, strawberries and herbs are sleeping happily under the snow. The clothesline has been taken down.

Nothing to do here, folks, but dig into some heavy winter food and watch a little football.

Except…Well, except the thinking and planning for next year.

There’s the seed order to make, and the layout plan for next spring, but there’s time enough in the next couple of weeks for that. No the thinking I’m talking about is a broader sort about mistakes I won’t repeat, and things we’ll do better in the next growing season.

Resolutions, if you will.

Top of my list:

I will be more on-the-ball about preventative sprays. There’s an art to this, if you’re committed to organic gardening. Fruit trees, especially, need constant attention with Bt and fungicides. If you don’t use the toxic stuff (and we don’t) you have less room for mistakes. Or at least I imagine you do. We’ve never used the toxic stuff.

By all measures, I blew it last year. What with the book and all the other upheaval of last spring, I opened my eyes one day in late June and realized I had forgotten to put anything at all on the trees. Forgotten! Not only that, but I continued to forget them all through the summer.

Ours looked worse

The result: Apples misshapen by worms, set upon by the birds. We hardly got any. And the pie cherry tree got a late bout of leaf spot that I was only semi successful in treating.

The milk spray I tried for powdery mildew on the vining plants also might have worked better if I’d only taken action sooner.

So this year, reminders go on my calendar, right beside the school strings concerts, heartworm pill and piano deadlines.

While we’re on the subject of stupid mistakes, how about those peppers? Right now, in my basement, we have jar upon jar of pickled, atomic hot peppers–so many that there’s no hope of using them in the next five years.

And why? Because the day I transplanted the peppers out into the garden, I was not careful about labeling the leftover plants. And then, when a couple of the baby plants died mysteriously, I had to replace them

Hot peppers

with…with…well, I think this is a sweet pepper. But they look identical.

Of course, it was not. End result: I ended up with way more hot peppers than sweet, and it needed to be the other way around.

The infuriating thing is, I make this mistake year after year after year. Somehow, when I’ve got the peppers in the ground, I just can’t see the need to take a minute extra to label the leftovers. Surely I won’t be using them anyway, right? So I guess my resolution here is not to be such an optimist and do the labeling.

Of course, there are other resolutions. I need to finally quit mourning the loss of the asparagus (to crown rot, I’d guess) and move on. Dig up the old bed, work in new soil, try again. I hope we won’t have to figure out a space for a new bed. And the lone, pitiful blueberry bush that never seems to get any bigger. It needs either a transplant or euthanasia.

But again, these are all just plans. Take a look at that ice and snow. No way to act on any of them today.

I love winter.

Coming up:

Sunday night is the Food Network’s Iron Chef America episode featuring the White House vegetable garden. It’s scheduled for 7 p.m., central time.

Posted by: Roxie

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