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Archive for July, 2011

It finally rained today — for all of five or 10 minutes. Pfft. Just enough to settle the dust.

No, wait.  Check that. I just went and, to me, the dust still seems remains depressingly unsettled. So the drought continues here in KC.  We’re in the midst of a two- or three-day break in a string of heat warnings (today’s forecast high is 89 with a heat index of 98). But it’s still way hot, and tomorrow the oven setting will once again be back up to  broil.

This weather  has been awful for the garden. No amount of watering can replace a good soaking rain, so the tomatoes are slow coming on, the beans have shut down, the peppers aren’t producing worth a darn.

And yet, brothers and sisters, can a hear an “amen” for the sweet corn harvest?

For the second year in a row, we’re raking in the roasting ears from our satellite garden patch. The varmints haven’t discovered it yet, other than reports of one in human form who was seen filching garden produce not his own the other day.

Before (left) and after blanching, our Silver Queen sweet corn changed colors.

So I’m picking corn this week.  I brought home and processed 50 ears on Thursday. That was from the four rows I planted first. But the other three rows, planted a week later, are catching up, so I should go out today and gather up some for lunch.

Note I used the word “processed.”

When you grow a lot of corn, you can only eat so much of it fresh from the garden. The rest,  you pick and deal with in one of four ways. One can   sell it at a roadside stand, give it away,  let it sit in the fridge to turn starchy, or then there’s option four: put it up, as we do.

By that I mean, we freeze it. Some people freeze whole ears, but we cut ours off the cob and stuff it in freezer bags. If you’d like to try it yourself, here’s the method:

Step one: Shuck the ears and remove as many of the silks as you can. I do it by hand, then finish up with a fine-tooth, yellow, plastic brush especially made for the job that gently removes the silks without damaging the kernels. Can’t remember where we got it.

Don't heat up the house. Process corn for freezing outside

Step two: Blanch ears in boiling water for 4 minutes, then remove with tongs and plunge immediately into cool or cold water to stop the cooking process.

Step three: Let stand in the cool water for 4 minutes, then drain on a towel.

Step four: Take the dry ears, one at a time, and stand them up, perpendicular to the cutting board. With a sharp knife (a thin but rigid stainless steel blade works best) slice the kernels from the cob.

Step five: Stuff kernels in bags and freeze. While the temptation is to stick as much corn in as few bags as possible, it’s better to bag corn in portions that you might actually use. It’s no fun trying to hack what you need off of a frozen corn brick big and heavy enough to knock out a night watchman.

Posted by: Mike

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There’s just no way around it. When it stays this hot this long, you are going to have to water your garden, like it or not.

Watering is one of those chores we especially despise, because in addition to being a pain, it costs money. You’re already out there slaving away, picking, processing, weeding, spraying, dusting. To that, you  add watering and pay extra to boot. It’s just not fair.

So today, I thought I’d take a nice air-conditioned break from my moaning and puling and dispense some tips that will make this chore–well not exactly less unpleasant, but a little more effective.

When to water

Well, it doesn’t take much of a botanist to see that when going outside  feels like  stepping into a forge, you must water. Don’t wait for your plants to start to look wilted. By then they may already be damaged.

Generally, your garden needs an inch a week. But that’s when the temperature is normal. When you have sustained temperatures in the high 90s to 100s, you need to water more. We do it at least every other day, until we finally get a good soaking rain. Then we back off for a couple of days.

Water in the morning

Morning watering is better for a couple of reasons. The temperature is at a low for the day so you lose less to evaporation. Also watering at night can promote fungus, because the moisture stays around longer on the leaves as the wind dies down.

When the plants need water

Sometimes your plants can (and should) get by with a little less water to promote deep root growth. But there are other times when you have to coddle them with more water. Fruit set–which is right now for most late-season vegetables  still out there–is one of those times. Cucumbers and corn need a lot of water to form kernels and fruit. Tomatoes would too, if the temperature were a bit lower so they could set fruit. But water them anyway, because you never know.

Vegetables also need extra watering around transplanting time (broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, etc.) and just after direct seeding (carrots, basil and anything else with particularly small seeds). But usually spring rains take care of that.

Ways to water

There are several different ways to get water out there. Here they are from worst to best (in my opinion):

*Each plant by hand with a hose or watering can–This was how we started out when we gardened on someone else’s property and it’s still how things are done in some community gardens. It’s our last resort, when no other method is available. Set aside for a minute the obvious back-breaking aspect and consider other disadvantages. For one thing, you aren’t likely to want to stand still long enough at each plant to give it the water it needs. And dragging that hose around makes it easy–even likely–that you’ll damage other plants as you go.

*Oscillating sprinkler–This is the type of sprinkler we now use because it’s the only one that still works. Oscillating sprinklers move a rainbow arc of water back and forth, so you water in a rectangle with the outside getting less than the inside. The main disadvantage is that the high arc means that more water lands on the leaves, where you don’t need it, and more can evaporate.

*Rotary or traveling sprinkler–These keep the water streams low so you don’t lose so much. The traveling sprinkler has the extra advantage of being fun. We used to call ours “Tractor Man” as it chugged around and around. Until it broke.

*Soaker hose–This is a hose with little holes in it. You lay it alongside the stems and turn it on, and the water drips out gradually. It’s very efficient because everything goes right to the roots. We used to have one. But it broke.

There you have it. Watering will get you through a little spell of hot and dry weather. But if it stays like this for more than 10 days or so, all bets are off.

So pray for a cold front. And rain.

Posted by: Roxie

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It’s transition time in our garden and in our kitchen. Late spring vegetables like green beans and beets are finishing up. Tomatoes, peppers and sweet corn are beginning to take their place. That means a switch from freezing–the preservation method of choice for broccoli and green beans–to pickling and canning.

And for a while, it also means lots of extra work as vegetables begin to pile up in our basement refrigerator, awaiting their turn to be processed.

This is the part of the year that most sensible people will point to when telling us why they would never garden. Because who has all that time?

In a way, they’re right. Take green beans, for example. You pick them, wash them, snap off the end(s) and/or string them, cut them, boil them, stop the cooking in cold water, drain them off, package in freezer bags and then label them and put them in the freezer. It’s overwhelming.

Yet we’ve been doing this while working various jobs, for a quarter century.

So today, I thought I’d share a little bit of how we (mostly I) manage the preservation chores without going mad. A brief update on the garden will follow.

The secret to keeping sane during preservation time is to break everything down over two or three days. And to have a spouse willing to take over supper on a moment’s notice.

Let’s look at those aforementioned green beans. The first day, we pick them. They go unwashed into a bag (those Green Bags really do work) in the refrigerator. Second day, they get washed and the ends snapped off. I never bother with the pointy tail end, and our Blue Lakes don’t have much of a string. We like ours French cut, so then we run them through the hand-cranked French cutter, which is a tedious chore.

By the time we’re done, I’m in need of a break. So the beans go into a bowl with plastic wrap on the top and back into the refrig for one more night. The next day, we boil and blanch them and put them into bags.

A lot of the things we process can be broken up this same way. Many pickle recipes, in fact, call for you to soak the slices overnight in lime or brine before canning.

Canning for tomato puree can also be done in stages. The tomatoes get picked and left on a table in the all-important basement until I can get to them. I fill a my big soup pot with them, then wash, remove the seeds and walk away while they cook just until boiling. When they’ve cooled a little, I run them through a food mill to get the skins off and put the pulp and juice into gallon vinegar jugs I’ve saved from previous years. They go into the basement refrig until I have a couple of these, and then I do the canning in one big session when I have more time free.

Result: With a little bit of kitchen work each day, we can have vegetables all year long and I still get to teach piano and watch the Women’s World Cup or read a book when I want to.

Garden Progress:

The high heat predicted through Tuesday will slow things down considerably. Yes, tomatoes love hot weather. But once you get over 95 or so, the plant gets stressed and says to itself, “Dang! It’s just too hot. I’m going to focus on keeping myself alive with what water I get. Call me when it’s 85 again.”

Not many vegetables love temperatures in the 100s, so look for this to delay things a bit.

Personally, I think the insects can sense heat stress and use the opportunity to dive right in. Or maybe they’re just extra thirsty. In any case, I’m keeping my cucumbers–which have just started to produce–watered and dusted with pyrethrin to fend off the cucumber beetles that transmit bacterial wilt. And we’re watching for signs of spider mites, which love hot, dry weather.
(Oh, by the way. I ran across this nifty site with disease resistance charts for various varieties of vegetables. It’s called Vegetable MD Online, from Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.)

After my trip to the extension office last week, we bought a container of liquid Bacillus subtilis fungicide (organic) and have emptied it on the tomatoes. So far, the leaf spot has not progressed.

The vine borers killed both zucchini plants (oh, well) and moved on to the butternut squash (!), so Mike hit them with some liquid Bt (Bacillus thurgenesis). Bt is pretty reliable against the soft-bodied wormy insects, and so far it has stopped the borers. We’ll also have to be on the lookout for powdery mildew, which usually kicks in in the next couple of weeks.

There is some good news, though. The currant bush has stopped its death spiral, probably in response to the trimming and lime sulphur fungicide we doused it with. It now seems to be holding steady.

Now if we can just get through this heat.

Posted by: Roxie

 

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If plants that had been looking beautiful suddenly keel over, if the strange webbing begins to appear, if formerly healthy green leaves turn dusty and gray, then surely is must be the month of July. July is heartbreak month in the vegetable garden.

So it is that I found myself yesterday scrutinizing a little patch toward the far end of the garden. I won’t lie. I was vexed.

Because…what the….? A group of about six tomatoes at one end of the tomato planting showed signs of tanning and dying leaves. One plant was limp, but others were still standing up. Over in the cauliflower next door, I saw similar tan leaves. And further up but still next to the tomatoes, one of two zucchini was on the ground.

It was a little swath of ongoing destruction seemingly affecting about a 10-by-5-foot area with several different families of plants.

I went to the Internet and searched Google Images. And searched. And searched. Tomato fusarium wilt. Verticillium wilt. Spot, speck, canker, septoria. Early blight. Late blight.  Anthracnose. None of the pictures seemed to match what I had. And what kind of freakazoid disease would affect so many different kinds of plants?

Back out to the garden I went. I took a closer look at the zucchini. Hmmm. After pulling up the leaves and looking at the stem, the culprit was revealed. Stem borers, and quite a few of them. That plant is not coming back. But I dusted it’s next door neighbor with some pyrethrin powder–the only thing we had in the cupboard yesterday–and went back to the tomatoes and cauliflower.

A nasty bouquet

The stems looked fine. No spots or sores on them. I cut off one stem and cut into it. No telltale brown layer that indicates a wilt like fusarium. And anyway, these seeds were saved from a Roma type that advertised being resistant.

Of course, there is a simple test you can do to settle the matter once and for all. But it’s kind of like the definitive test for rabies. An organism has to die for your right to know.

Even so, I collected a knife and a glass of water and headed out once again. I would pull up the sickest tomato and cut a section of the main stem just above root level, then hold the cut end in the water. If a milk ooze comes out, it’s a bacterial infection.

But when I got there, I couldn’t go through with it. There were three good-sized green tomatoes and look! A couple of branches didn’t seem so bad.

Enough was enough. There was something weird and it didn’t look good. I’d already spent the whole morning on this. Who was I going to call?

The county extension service. The people at the Master Gardener Hotline were nice, but stumped. How far away did I live? Could I bring some samples in?

When I got there, the office was at defcon 4 because a guy before me (in short sleeves) had brought in a big healthy bouquet of poison ivy so he could find out what it was. The whole place was being swabbed down.

But Dennis Patton was there to put my pitiful leaves under the microscope.

My specimens were a poser, even to the county’s No. 1 plant diagnostician. But he had some ideas.

The tomatoes: The leaves looked like something in the septoria or early blight family of fungal diseases. That didn’t explain why only one random plant flopped down, though. Maybe that one got a little nick from the hose or the hoe, he said. Or maybe it just had some freaky genetic problem. He advised pulling the plant but not composting it, to be safe. And we should buy new Roma seeds next year, rather than saving them.

The disease doesn’t have to be fatal, but it will probably reduce the yield. Organic controls recommended are bacillus subtilis, which goes under the names of Serenade Garden Disease Control, or some kind of natural copper liquid fungicide.

The cauliflower: Tan leaves here probably were not caused by a disease. Cauliflower likes cooler weather and is susceptible to sun scald. Chances are that when I tied up the leaves, the lower ones were just shocked by the hot sun they were now exposed to. Oh well. Time for those to come out, anyway.

So let’s review. Vine borers. Fungal disease. Sun scald. Possible stem damage. All these things attacking at once.

Like I said, July is the heartbreak month.

Now it’s time to get busy.

Posted by: Roxie

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High summer has arrived at the garden paradise, and you know what that means.

Garlic.

What, you thought I might dwell on the upcoming tomato and sweet corn harvest, the two crops synonymous with this season of long days, blistering heat and gawdawful  humidity?

Or maybe you were anxious to learn about our latest potential garden disaster. Wilt! It’s spreading through the cucumber patch and could deny us the pickles we so look forward to and deserve.

Actually, that is of some concern right now, but cucumbers are Roxie’s department.

Garlic is my area. And  if you also grow garlic, then you know that it’s  ready for digging, and dig garlic I did this week. The idea was to get at it  before the brown top growth crumbled into nothingness, making it all the more difficult to locate those big,  pale bulbs of spicy goodness. That’s happened more than once when I’ve put things off.

Enough garlic to last us awhile

If you’re a first-time gardener, here’s what you need to remember. Garlic should be planted in the fall. It’s ready for harvest in the summer when the tops turn brown and keel over on their side.  Sort of the way you feel while toiling in the garden on a hot day.

Usually, I harvest garlic about the same time I dig up  two other members of the onion family that are summertime staples for us:   Those  fist-sized yellow onions that are essential to practically everything you cook, as well as the dainty shallots that figure into far fewer dishes but are sometimes hard to find at the store.

Neither crop is ready yet, but we’re fortunate that the garlic came in ahead of the others this year.

It’s  a matter of space. Garlic can keep for six months or more without refrigeration. But to keep it from rotting, it needs to dry, or cure, for a week or so before being put up.  Some gardeners, especially in cooler climes, lay their garlic, onions or shallots out in the sun.

We prefer to spread ours out on the big front porch on dog fencing or screens that are elevated a couple of inches off the porch floor. That allows airflow above and below, as well as drainage, should a sudden shower move in. Normally, I harvest the garlic, onions and shallots all at once and dry them altogether. An onion family reunion.

Normally, our porch is big enough for that, while still allowing  Roxie and I room to hang out on the wicker furniture reading the paper or petting the dog. Not this year.  Boy, did we grow a lot of garlic.

The bulbs are much bigger than the puny specimens we got in 2010, and I think I know the reason why. More sun, less shade.

Now the problem is what to do with all that garlic once its dried and the dirt has been brushed off. Normally, we remove the tops and store the bulbs in those red, mesh bags that onions come in at the grocery store. I hang them from the basement rafters.

But unless you have a cool basement that borders on cold, garlic will eventually dry out by January or February.

So I’m going to experiment with different ways of preserving it this year. Freezing works, I hear, but it changes the texture and taste.  Pickled garlic is one of my faves, but Roxie is not thrilled about doing the work it takes for what is essentially just a snack food. Which means I might give it a go this year.

You can also store garlic in wine or vinegar, but only for a few months. However, never, ever store garlic in oil at room temperature. The combination  can produce botulism, a toxin that will make you sick or even kill you.

I ran into one website that recommends peeling garlic cloves and laying them out in a dehydrator for 16 hours. You then have the basic ingredient for garlic powder or garlic salt. Grind the cloves into a dust and voila.

But why go to all that trouble when nature can do some of the work. When last year’s garlic cloves turned hard and brown this past March and April, Roxie and I didn’t toss them into the composter as we normally do.  We peeled the pebble- hard cloves and ran them through our electric coffee/spice grinder.

Instant garlic powder at a price that can’t be beat. Now there’s one less item to buy at the grocery store, and isn’t saving money what gardening is all about? One of the things, anyway.

Posted by: Mike

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