Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Seed Catalog Time

Since mid-December seed catalogs have been arriving. My favorite is Johnny's because of the useful information in it. However the source of most of my seeds is Fedco. As time goes on I will be switching away from hybrid varieties and so Seed Savers Exchange will become an increasing source. I would like to begin saving some seeds.

The mild green that we have liked most in the past two years - zen - seems to be only sold under that name by Burpee and Cook's Garden (which I believe is now owned by Burpee). Since it now sells for around $5 a packet I am looking for other greens that are similar. I have several on order and will grow them this year to see if they can replace zen. (Trying to locate zen greens through Google doesn't help - the "zen" part leads down a whole different path.

Zen is the larger leafy green at the left in this photograph. The plant to its right is an Italian dandelion ("Clio"). It is a very nice upright plant that definitely has a dandelion taste. I know that deer like it. I didn't notice any deer munching of the zen but they weren't growing right next to the dandelions this year. Snails and slugs did take their share.

In any event, the arrival of the catalogs has had its usual result - I have ordered a batch of things that I have not grown in the past including tatsoi, golden purslane, minutina, komatsuna, celeriac, and Belgian endive. My garden does not lack for purslane. It is the major weed in the vegetable garden and while we could let it grow to add to salads it seems to grow best with lesser expectations. That is, when I select a few plants to grow for consumption they don't grow nearly as well as the ones that I don't want to grow.

I am told that celeriac is very easy to grow and we bought a couple and ate them. They can be stored to be available after the cold weather begins. The Belgian endive grows during the regular gardening season and then can be brought in and forced to produce again in the dark of the cellar. Both of these are part of our effort to extend the growing season. Some of the other new vegetables - tatsoi and minutina - are greens that I will try to grow in the winter cold frames, which I hope will begin to materialize soon. I have cleaned up enough the cellar area around the table saw that I can begin cutting wood for the first glassed cold frame. I plan to put this one in the garden and transplant mache and spinach into it soon after the beginning of February from seeds I started two days ago. It will be interesting to see whether the soil, under the frame, will warm up enough for planting.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Ground Cherries

My daughter asked what ground cherries look like. This is what they look like when they are growing, except that this plant doesn't have very many ground cherries showing on it. The fruit grows inside a husk, and there are two clearly visible in this picture. We didn't grow them until 2008 and this was actually our only plant that year. We had ordered two plants but transplanted them a little too early and one didn't survive the frost. They should be planted on a tomato schedule, that is, near the end of May, beginning of June.

At that time we didn't know how easy it was to start ground cherries from seed. We also didn't know much space they need because the one plant in 2008 had its growth inhibited by the frost and by growing in the shadow of soybeans and cucumbers. This year I had 25 seedlings to transplant but they are so productive that I think I only need 8 to 10 next year.

Harvesting ground cherries take a little effort. The fruit grows inside a husk and they are not ready to harvest until they fall off the plant. Even then many (at least this year) were not ripe enough to use. They have to be yellow. To use the fruit the husk has to be removed, which is quite easy but also time consuming. There was quite a bit of waste this year consisting of unripe fruit and over-ripe (cracked) fruit.

Here is what the fruit looks like. After removing the ripe fruit from the husks and unusable fruit we rinse them, put them on a cookie sheet, and freeze them. Once they are frozen we put them into freezer bags and keep them until we have enough to use. Our favorite use is ground cherry jam. It has a unique and pleasant taste. Other people make ground cherry pies.

Our challenge for next year is to find ways to grow the ground cherries so that harvesting is easier and more productive. This year we had to be on our hands and knees reaching under the rather low growing plants to find the fruits on the ground. We suspect that chipmunks were also eating some of them because there were a lot of empty husks and the chipmunks were often in that area. We might try growing them in containers so they are off the ground.

Extending the Season and the Challenge of Slugs

My only serious attempt to extend the growing season has been a cedar frame with a glass cover that I have used the past four years to keep lettuce in wait for growing in the early spring. Here is what it looked like two years ago. The glass cover (an old storm door window) just sits on top (see below).

The first year this worked wonderfully and in the spring we harvested quite a bit of lettuce before anything was ready from the regular garden. I think I was just lucky that year because I had no idea of when to start the seedlings and no problem with slugs. In the intervening years I didn't plant soon enough (last year) or slugs had a feast. It must be a real treat for them to have a protected, relatively warm place with delicious young seedlings to feast on.

This year I either planted early eno
ugh or the unusually warm November gave the seedlings enough time to mature. But, as a number of people have experienced, slugs and snails have had a very productive year. I originally set out 35 seedlings and a little later replaced six or seven of them to maintain the 35 seedling number. But as some of those began to disappear I discovered that slugs were the problem. I had left the black six-packs with a few remaining seedlings in the frame and discovered that slugs were spending their daylight hours under the six packs and in the grooves between the cells of the six pack. Obviously slug control was needed. I set out a piece of board with black plastic stapled to it in the middle of the seedlings and a small black plastic tray in a corner of the bed. Each day I go out, remove the glass cover and transfer whatever slugs I find into salt water. I am surprized at the number of slugs that I have removed from this relatively small area - somewhere between 40 and 50. I don't know whether they are immigating into the frame from outside, or there are eggs hatching in the soil, or there are just that many slugs there. When I go two days without finding slugs I think the battle is over but then go out the next day and find three or four more.

I have also scattered crushed egg shells around the seedlings and for the past week or ten days the number of healthy looking
plants has held at 24. I don't know why I didn't do that when I planted the seedlings because I did that earlier with Chinese cabbages. What I did do initially was spread some wheat bran around the seedlings. Rumors that slugs eat the bran and die didn't work for me. The bran absorbed moisture and got crusty and needed to be removed.

As to the correct planting time for the seedlings, I just read in Eliot Coleman's "The Winter Harvest Handbook" that pl
ants you want to harvest through the winter need to have almost reached maturity before the day length becomes shorter than ten hours. In Syracuse that would be November 8th. I started this year's lettuce on September 23rd and transplanted them into the frame around October 28th. That seems about right, although maybe starting the seeds a week earlier would be better. I recall also reading recently that September 15th is suggested.

Friday, December 4, 2009

What We Harvested This Year

This was a year of keeping records and one of my primary goals was to record everything we harvested. We did get most of it although occasionally some greens were already washed and in the pot before we remembered that we hadn't weighed them and although the basil crop had a bad year I know we (well, my wife, to be accurate) did make some pesto even though I don't show any harvesting of basil in this list. But here are the results of what we did weigh:

Asparagus 8 lbs (then I dug up the bed after starting a new one)
Beans (pole) 29 3/4 lbs (not including what was lost to groundhog and deer trimming)
Blackberries 7 1/2 lbs
Blueberries 23 lbs (another great year)
Chinese cabbage 6 3/4 lbs (after removing lots of snail and slug damaged leaves)
Currants 1 lb (this is their first year to produce)
Dill 1/2 lb (plus the seeds that I harvested)
Fava beans 1+ lbs (shelled and I didn't weigh half of the crop)
Garlic 17 3/4 lbs (this was generally an excellent year for garlic)
Garlic scapes 2 lbs
Greens 42 1/2 lbs (this includes zen, Italian dandelion, collards and some kale)
Ground cherries 11 1/2 lbs (but a lot is unripe and over ripe berries)
Jerusalem artichokes 3 lbs (these came up by themselves from ones we pulled years ago)
Kale 19 lbs (and we are still picking)
Leeks 8 lbs
Lettuce 13 lbs (ground hogs got quite a bit too)
Malabar spinach 5 lbs (there was a lot more that got intertwined with the pole beans)
Pak choi 17 1/2 lbs (my first successful year)
Parsley 2 1/2 lbs (mostly made into pesto)
Patty pan squash 18 1/4 lbs (and we would have eaten lots more)
Peas 3 1/2 lbs (I will use an innoculant next year and grow some with better taste)
Peppers 13 lbs
Potatoes 41 lbs (from 5 lbs of seed potatoes)
Raspberries 24 lbs
Rhubarb 2 lbs (first year to harvest)
Scallions 1/2 lb+ (most were picked as needed and not weighed)
Spinach 5 1/2 lbs
Swiss chard 10 lbs
Tomatoes 21 lbs (before the late blight got them all)
Trombocino squash 1 1/2 lbs (we stopped picking them because the patty pans were so much tastier)

About 360 lbs of produce. At the cost of organic produce this probably equates to between $750 and $1,000. More important to us is that what we grow here at home is safe (no pesticides, no E. coli) and, we believe, more nutritious, better tasting and it travels only a few feet from where it grows to where we eat it.

This was a good base year to grow from. My emphasis next year will be on extending the harvest into the fall and winter. That's my reading topic right now. Maybe I will actually use some of those old glazed windows that I have been collecting.