Garlic … and goodbye until spring

by Peter Heffelfinger

posted October 12, 2020

Garlicand goodbye until spring

Unlike the tulip and daffodils that do so well in the cool maritime climate of the Skagit Valley, garlic is an overwintering bulb that prefers drier winters without the threat of ongoing rains, annual floods, and the host of fungal diseases that lurk in our soil. When I first started growing garlic on Fidalgo Island in the late ‘70’s I had luxuriant stands of silverskin garlic for braiding. The winter rains were more constant, but much lighter, with more drizzle and mist instead of the heavy downpours that we get now. As long as one had raised beds for good drainage, garlic could do well. But since I was growing in a vale of rich stream bed soil next to a lake, the moisture levels ultimately led to a case of the dreaded “white root-rot disease” that affects garlic. Once the fungus is present the soil, there’s no cure other than not growing this particular allium for 12 years, or finding a new site.

So, I moved my garlic crop to a sandy plot on the Skagit Flats. With the beds built up at least 6 inches and drainage ditches all around, the garlic did well in spite of occasional seasonal floods in the area from the Samish River. I also switched to hard neck garlic, whose stiff upright stems did better in the increasingly wet winter climate. Although silverskin varieties last longer in storage, I found that I could keep the hard neck bulbs all winter long by leaving a short 2-inch long stem on each head, perhaps to serve as a wick to draw out any moisture. I store the garlic in closed brown paper bags on shelves in an unheated appliance room, making sure the bulbs have been well cleaned, with the roots cut off, and only a minimum of sheath skins left on the head to avoid inner moisture accumulation and spoilage.

At my valley site I’ve had reliable crops for almost a decade. This past year, however, when I harvested the crop there was mold on almost a third of the heads (not on the roots, thankfully). It may have been due to the layer of commercial mulch that I put on the beds the past two seasons to keep down weeds, or maybe due to the wet winter. Plus, I harvested late in the season after an unexpected, heavy rain. One never really knows. Thankfully I grew a large enough crop to save the best for seed and still have enough to use all winter.

In any case, it’s garlic planting time again, and hopefully there will be less damage showing up next spring. I try to get the garlic in by Halloween at the latest, using the largest cloves, planting the cloves 2 inches deep, 4 inches apart, in rows at least 6 inches apart. I make 6 inch high raised beds with a 1-3 inch deep drainage ditch around the edge to keep moisture away from the bulbs as much as possible. I rotate the beds each year around a larger plot to minimize disease.

If you have well-rotted manure available it can worked into the beds beforehand. Otherwise wait until late February or early March to apply a fertilizer to overcome the unavailability of nitrogen in our still-cold spring soils. Some growers suggest using high nitrogen blood meal applied once, while others say a standard 5-5-5 formula can be applied at monthly intervals in the spring. It likely depends on the fertility of your particular site. Remember though to go easy on the fertilizer. You’re growing underground bulbs, not large cabbages or tall tomato vines.

Left: Red Russian garlic

I grow hard neck varieties: Music, Deja Vue, Red Russian, and Korean Red, acclimated to our Northwest conditions, and bought originally from local seed companies. You can also find local garlic at area farmers markets. The larger, more open cloves of the hard neck varieties are easier to peel than the smaller, tighter skinned silver skins. The hard necks also develop curly tops known as “scapes” a month or so before harvest. Remove the scapes as soon as they start to appear, to concentrate all the growth in the bulbs. Scapes can be stir-fried, grilled, steamed with salmon, or used to make soup stock. An early taste of garlic greens before the lifting of the bulbs later on. The stems can also be chopped, blanched, chilled, and then frozen for later use in winter soups.

Fall Garden

The second planting of cauliflower matured in September, a bit smaller than the large mid-summer heads, but still appreciated. The fall cabbages and collards are taking off in the fall rains, and the first of the winter-hardy leeks are ready to be pulled. The Brussels sprouts are suffering from aphids again, but with frequent sprays of soapy water I trust there will be a few buds unaffected later on. The Mizuna and Purple mustards, the turnip greens, along with the broccoli Raab, are now ready for the first picking. Hopefully the greens will keep going most of the winter. With the cover crop of annual rye planted in the outdoor beds, the major part of the garden cycle is drawing to a close.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Above: Peter Heffelfinger in hoop house (photo courtesy of Skagit Valley Herald)

Inside the hoop house the cucumber vines are still producing a few last cukes, high up by the center ridge pole, where a little heat still accumulates. Once the tomato and cuke vines and the pepper plants are removed from the hoop house, those beds will also be sown with rye. After the rye is sprouted, the plastic roof will be taken down to save it from winter winds. The “greenhouse” beds then get refreshed by a six-month exposure to the elements, to prevent disease build up.

Indoors, the last of the tomatoes are ripening on trays in a warm room, and the final gallon of sauerkraut is ready to be put in small jars and stored in a fridge, along with the jars of brined pickles. The pumpkins and winter squash are still curing in the shed and the potatoes are safely stored in their dark boxes. Ready for winter.

The 2020 season has been a challenge, with rains in June, heat in August, and forest fire smoke in September. But with a few over-wintering crops, and much produce in various forms of storage, we should be able to carry on to the next growing year.

Note: I will be taking a break from doing the ‘Fidalgo Grows’ blog. I’ve enjoyed all the responses and questions and hope my information has been of use. I also hope to start up again next spring. Thanks to Evelyn Adams and Jack Hartt for their support.

On behalf of Transition Fidalgo & Friends, and all of those who benefited from this blog, deepest thanks to Peter for sharing so generously of his time and wisdom. See you in the spring!

Potato Storage

by Peter Heffelfinger

posted September 28, 2020

 

I often think of potatoes as pioneer food, since the tubers would last for months while being transported long distances and then could be planted in the first available spot at a new homestead. No special soil or cultivation needed, at least for the initial crop, and no extra fertilizer required the first year since the potato itself was a self-contained nutrient supply for the young seedling. I imagine the early settlers in the Pacific Northwest sticking a few precious potatoes in the open ground between the newly fallen old-growth trees. Potatoes were the easily grown carbohydrate that was not only a complete food nutritionally, but could be also be stored easily all winter. No wonder potatoes, first domesticated in the New World, rapidly spread to the other continents.

These days, before digging up the potatoes, I let the vines completely die down and then sit undisturbed for two weeks in order for the soft potato skins to harden up. In past years I washed down the freshly dug tubers with a hose and then let them air dry in the sun for no more than half a day, being careful to avoid any green skin spots developing from over-exposure to light. [Note: the green skin layer on a potato should be removed and not eaten, since it develops a harmful substance.] My thought was that washing would help prevent any soil-borne diseases from being carried into the storage containers. It has worked fine to date, but it was a full day of work to prepare the spuds for storage.

Recently a Master Gardener column stated that it was safe to store potatoes unwashed, I assume to limit any exposure to water or to avoid the spread of disease. So, this year I merely rubbed any dry soil off, and got rid of any rotten or obviously diseased tubers. I always have a few with brown rot in a hollowed-out core, but it hasn’t been a major blight for me to date. (I have heard this year, however, from another local gardener with that disease in his red potatoes.) A small amount of scab on the surface seems to be ok since it doesn’t penetrate the skin enough to cause spoilage later on. Any potatoes damaged from digging I put aside for immediate use since freshly broken skin areas would soon decay.

All in all, potatoes are susceptible to a variety of diseases, but it is possible to have a good crop as long as you practice good garden hygiene, rotate your growing site, and make sure to plant in our native acid soil (no lime application the winter before or just prior to planting). And use certified, disease-free seed potatoes. I rely on varieties that do well locally, such as Yukon Gold, California Whites, a standard Russet, and whichever Red is available each year. I’ve found that East Coast varieties such as Kennebec don’t seem to do well out here, perhaps due to different soil and milder weather. I’ve grown the purple potatoes originally from Peru, which did very well, but they’re a visual challenge on the plate.

For storage containers I use cardboard boxes filled just halfway with potatoes, with a layer of newspaper inserted against the side-walls to block the light from any handle or ventilation openings. I also add several layers of newsprint on top of the potatoes before folding over the top flaps of the box. The aim is to seal out any possible exposure to light. I find that the half-filled box allows the tubers to breathe a bit, since they give off a lot of moisture in storage. The newspaper acts as a sponge to soak up any extra humidity that might cause rot.

Fresh-dug potatoes are essentially seed plants over-wintering in the dark, waiting for spring. Actually, they don’t wait very long before the ‘eyes’ start sprouting, usually by mid-winter. I check the boxes regularly, rubbing off any new sprouts as they appear. If left to grow out, the sprouts will turn into active roots, and the entire box will soon turn into a nest of interlaced white roots. The potatoes themselves will have started to turn soft, since they are feeding the roots. If carefully de-sprouted at least once a month, I find that boxed potatoes will last most of the winter.

Note: To avoid confusion later on, limit each box to one variety and label it on the outside. Varieties of potatoes may have shorter or longer storage lives, not to mention differing densities that will affect cooking times.

I keep the boxes on a cool concrete floor of an unheated laundry room, next to a freezer and a storage fridge for fermented kraut and pickles.

The appliance motors supply just enough indoor warmth to protect any stored produce from freezing, but not too much heat to cause spoilage.

If any of the potatoes do eventually become too sprouted and soft, process them en masse by removing the sprouts, paring off the softened skins and boiling them all up. I let them cool and then store in freezer bags as a last supply of potatoes for the tail end of winter. Not the highest quality fresh produce, but they are homegrown, organic, and good for soup or hash browns. Plus, I always feel committed to using up what I have raised myself. Any potatoes that are too far gone, however, end up in the worm bins.

In order to avoid disease, I don’t use any homegrown potatoes as seed the following year. I always buy fresh seed potatoes each spring, since they’re checked to be disease-free, having been grown in drier areas that are less prone to the many diseases that potatoes are prone to. Of course, if you’re attempting to maintain an heirloom variety, you’ll have to use the healthy-looking potatoes left in storage, sprouts and all. That is what the pioneers did, and certainly what the Incas still do in the Andes, where potatoes were first domesticated.

The End of Summer

by Peter Heffelfinger

posted September 21, 2020

The End of Summer

After the many days of forest fire smoke, with a lack of wind due to the inversion effect of the heavy haze, it was a relief this past weekend to finally see the sun and feel a small breeze. The extreme fire danger is still present, so one hopes we can get through the fall without any local blazes.

While the weather was on hold, the garden duties kept perking along. The last of the tomatoes needed to be processed or given away, the final cucumbers had to be pickled or made into appetizers, and the cabbage heads, both green and red, made their way into the sauerkraut jars. In June a third of my seed potatoes failed to sprout due to the wet weather, but, to my great relief, the rest of the seed ultimately produced a healthy harvest of Yukon Golds, La Soda Reds, and California Whites. To quickly cover the failed potato ground I planted a few hills of winter squash and pumpkins. By September that bare corner of the garden was filled with the bright oranges of Cinderella’s Coach squash and Sugar Pie pumpkins.

At the other end of the garden, a planting of standard pumpkins is offering similar pre-Halloween bounty, along with a great number of Vegetable Spaghetti squash. As the vines die back, all the members of the extended gourd family need to be moved to a dry, airy space to properly cure prior to storage indoors. It’s going to be a cucurbit winter.

Fall Greens

The early September plantings of Oriental greens, Miner’s lettuce, mustards, turnips and kohlrabi all came through the smoky stasis. As often happens, I seeded the bed a bit too thickly, so the first duty was to carefully thin the seedlings to give them proper spacing. For fall and winter vegetables it is important to leave extra room between the plants; they need to spread out a bit wider to gather the decreased light from the low-angled winter sun. At 45 degrees latitude north, our corner of the Pacific Northwest is halfway to the North Pole, and in winter is far removed from the more sunny south.

I also made a second planting of fall greens two weeks later, just in case there was any problem due to the continually grey days. If we get an extended stretch of warm autumn weather, both patches should do well. If cold weather threatens later on, I can set up small hoop houses of floating row cover to keep off the frost. I prefer row cover to plastic for winter protection, since it provides just enough added heat to protect hardy greens, allows the rain to water the beds, and also softens the harsh winds. Given our recent trend toward warmer but wetter winters, I’m betting that we won’t see any really hard freezes. But just in case, it pays to keep a supply of Agribon or Reemay row cover handy.

Fall Cover Crop

The fall equinox is also a good time to plant a fall cover crop. I prefer annual rye since it’s simple to plant. I find that most cover crop mixes include seeds of widely varying size, from large Alaskan peas to tiny crimson clover, with annual rye in the middle. It’s difficult to plant each seed at its proper depth, often resulting in spotty germination. I cover freshly seeded rye, lightly raked in, with floating row cover for a few weeks, as protection against hungry birds. If you wait to plant rye later in the fall, when the soil is much cooler, the row cover also provides just enough warmth to sprout the seed.

Row cover material is actually plain white interfacing, commonly used in lining down jackets and other clothes. Who knew it could also be used to protect gardens against the cold? A tool of the garment industry has crossed over into horticulture.

Harvest Season

by Peter Heffelfinger

posted September 14, 2020

 

Harvest Season

During the high levels of smoke locally from all the forest fires on both sides of the state, I’ve been spending my extended time indoors processing the garden harvest.

To date I’ve made three kinds of sauerkraut: first, a plain or ‘Naked Kraut,’ as the fermenting book labels it, just green cabbage and sea salt; second, a Middle Eastern style kraut made with Za’atar, an spice blend that includes sumac, a tart lemon-flavored herb; and third, Curtido, a Latin American style kraut with carrots, onions, garlic, oregano, cumin, and dried chiles. So far, while fermenting in the cool pantry, the krauts have withstood the recent high temperatures that might spoil them. The key is to check the large gallon jars everyday, tamping down the cabbage back into the brine, to vent all the bubbling.

And of course tasting a bit each time to see how close it is to being done.

Next up to try will be a German Blaukraut made with red cabbage, tart apples and caraway seeds. After each kraut is sufficiently fermented, between 7 to 14 days, it is ladled into quart jars, topped with fresh grape leaves, the lid is tightened, and the jar can be stored in a fridge for up to a year. When the garden gives you lots of cabbage, make sauerkraut.

The last of the pickling and Persian cucumbers have been put in salt brine to ferment for 12 days, along with garlic cloves, dried cayenne chilies, bay leaves, and both mustard and dill seeds. A grape leaf goes on top to keep the cukes submerged in the brine. Hopefully a New York style deli sour pickle will develop. Again, daily monitoring is needed to clean off any scum on top and to add fresh brine as needed. After fermenting is done, the pickles can be stored in the fridge for a year, all the while maintaining their probiotic levels since they were not heat processed. Old style fermentation is now back in style as the latest in diet health.

Finally, the tomatoes all got very ripe due to the hot winds that initially brought in the forest fire smoke. To deal with the full flats of tomatoes, I used a high speed food processor to pulp the cored tomatoes and I froze the pulp in quart containers. I combined all the tomato types into one all-purpose puréed sauce: the Early Girls and the Big Beefs, the Romas and San Marzanos, and the soft heirlooms such as Mortgage Lifter and Old German Mennonite. The regular table tomatoes supply lots of juice, the Italian varieties add thick flesh, and the heirlooms provide sweetener and flavor. Very similar to mixing varieties of apples to make a good, balanced fresh cider.

 

Return of the Aphids

After the rainfall in late August the aphids returned to their favorite site, the brassicas. White, translucent aphids reappeared hidden inside the top buds of the Brussels Sprouts, so this time I broke off the bud tip and doused the area with a mild detergent soap spray. I also removed some bottom sprouts lower down that had turned black or were beginning to open up into small off-shoots, and gave the entire lower stem area a squirt of soap to deter any other aphid colonies. In contrast, black aphids appeared on the fall cabbages, collards and broccoli starts that were just taking off. Again, a dose of soap spray will hopefully keep these aphids in check. There’s always an insect waiting to dine on the garden before you get to eat.

 

Smoke in the Air

I was interested in the effect of the extended days of smoky air on the garden plants. The newly sprouted fall greens, turnips, and miner’s lettuce seemed unaffected but still needed their daily watering to keep from drying out. In the hoop house, with an outside temperature staying around 60F degrees most of the day, the ambient solar radiation still managed to raise the interior temperature to 79F degrees with the sides closed. The heat will help ripen the last of the peppers: the Italian Red Roasters, the Early Jalapeños, the Padrones and Anchos, as well as the small but potent Cherry Bombs. Not to forget the North Stars, the regular green peppers that if given the chance will eventually turn red on the stem.

Fall and Winter Greens, and Tomato Harvests

by Peter Heffelfinger

posted August 31, 2020

Fall and Winter Greens

The arrival of cooler weather means it’s time to plant hardy greens that will mature during the fall and then last through all but the coldest winter weather. In a new raised bed, positioned to catch the low angle of winter sun, I planted four greens I’ve had success with in the past: Miner’s Lettuce, also known as Claytonia or Winter Purslane; Rosette Bok Choy, a hardy Tatsoi variety; Broccoli Raab, also called Rapini or broccoletti; and Mizuna Mustard, a bushy Japanese type. I’m also trying out a new green, Chinese Kale, or Kailaan, that looks like a leafier version of the Broccoli Raab.

Note: add only a minimum of nitrogen to the soil for cold weather greens, to avoid over-production of soft leafy tissue that freezes too easily. I grew peas earlier this year on the soil of the new greens bed, so there should be adequate nitrogen from the root nodes of the legume. I always do work in a bit of kelp meal, which seems to help all plants resist cold.

The Miner’s Lettuce, in spite of its delicate floral look, stands up well all winter and will readily go to seed in the spring. The round, leafy cups have a soft succulent feel in contrast to the stiff fronds of the Lacinato Kale, a hardy green that’s already well-established in other areas of the garden. The Rosette Bok Choy, which grows low to the soil surface and stays green even in light snow, is known as Spoon Choy, since the leaves resemble little spoons. The Broccoli Raab requires the protection of a small hoop house covered with floating row cover, but it will keep offering small buds even during hard cold snaps that leave frozen droplets on its leaves. I’m hoping the Kailaan Kale will have the same hardiness as the Raab, but offering a slightly different texture. There’s always something new to try when you’re cruising the seed racks or going through seed catalogs. And the pictures on the packets always look so perfect.

A second bed will include Purple Top White Globe Turnips, mostly for the greens rather than the roots. Last year I did Tokyo Cross Turnips, a winter variety grown only for the greens. The Tokyo roots eventually grew to the size of a soccer balls, half submerged in the soil, but they kept offering shoots and buds all winter. The key is to keep snipping off the sprigs before they get too long or go to flower in the early spring. If the roots of the Purple Top Turnip do stay small and edible this year, I like them cut into small chunks with the lower part of the stems still attached, then pan-steamed with a little butter and a touch of either soy and/or hot sauce.

I will also put in a fall crop of Purple Kohlrabi, with the unique bulbs that look like slightly flattened tennis balls floating a few inches off the ground. Kohlrabi is good as an appetizer, sliced very thin and then marinated for a short time in rice vinegar mixed with a little water. Plus, there will be a few Red Giant Mustard plants for a some heat during the chill of winter.

Note: One advantage of growing brassicas in the fall is you avoid the cabbage root fly maggots, which emerge in the spring.

Tomato Harvest

Tomatoes are in full production mode now. This year I tried some heirloom varieties for the first time, including Pink Brandywine, Old German/Mennonite, Purple Cherokee, and Mortgage Lifter. As expected, I found them more problematic than the modern varieties, with much skin cracking, some blossom end rot, and less production overall.

Mortgage Lifter, a name right out of the Great Depression, was the most successful, with deeply ribbed, large pinkish red fruit that held well on the vine. The Mennonite, also very large, was deep yellow, with a star of bright red color at the blossom end, and very soft, sweet flesh. The Brandywine and Purple Cherokee produced a only a small number of tomatoes, many of which got too soft before I realized they should have been picked a bit earlier.

All the other tomatoes I grew were varieties that do well locally: Roma and Granadero sauce tomatoes; two beefsteak varieties, Jo’s Best and Big Beef; two determinates, Early Girl and Siletz; as well Sungold and Sweet Million cherry tomatoes. The modern, standard-size types of course produce large, relatively disease-free crops that ripen well on the vine, have thicker skins that resist damage, and denser flesh that’s not as delicate or sugary as the heirlooms. But they are sweet enough for fresh eating, and work well for home freezing or canning. Reliability is a good trade-off when you intend to preserve your garden crop for the winter. And a few heirlooms, mixed in with the large batches of modern tomatoes being processed, add just the needed touch of old-fashioned sweetness and flavor.

Fall Cover Crops

by Peter Heffelfinger

posted August 25, 2020

The first signs of fall usually arrive in late August: cooler nights, early morning fogs, and a few rain showers to break up the steady stream of sunny days. The change in summer weather is an early reminder that mid-September through October is the time to sow a winter cover crop in areas of the garden not occupied by fall greens or overwintering plants. A cover crop lessens soil erosion and runoff, as well as preventing  compaction on bare ground. This is particularly important given the heavier winter rainfall that has been occurring with climate change. We are getting the same amount of rain overall, but it’s arriving in more intense storms. Not the usual Northwest slow drip anymore.

My standard cover crop is annual rye, since it is readily available, fairly inexpensive, and, if protected by row covers, can be sown in chilly conditions in late October and even into early November. (Note: do not use rye grass seed, which is a perennial for lawns.) Annual rye does not supply much nitrogen to the soil, but it develops a strong root system and stays a vibrant green even in the coldest winter weather. It will get lush and thick early in spring so it is important to till it in as soon as the soil has dried out enough to be safely worked. If the rye gets over 6-8 inches tall, mow or cut the tops before tilling or digging in with a fork, to hasten the decomposition of both the roots and the shoots. It usually takes a week to ten days to completely compost a healthy crop of rye into the existing soil. A second tilling may be needed to grind up any lingering root wads or clumps of ryegrass before preparing the beds for planting. The end result is a fluffy soil structure, high in tilth, that is ideal for the first crops of spring.

There are a variety of other cover crops, such as crimson clover, Alaska peas, or fava beans, but they are more expensive. They supply nitrogen to the soil, if needed, but I find the regular addition of compost and organic fertilizer materials is more than enough to keep a year-round garden adequately supplied with nutrients in order to grow healthy plants. To maintain high soil fertility I use worm castings, horse manure tea, or fish fertilizer during the growing seasons. Annual rye does what is most needed during the winter: holding on to the soil during the rain, and then easily dissolving into the ground just prior to the first spring plantings.

I do find that the rye seeds, which are only lightly raked into the soil, need to be protected against the birds, who will quickly descend on any freshly sown plot. There are always a few seeds left exposed on the surface, an instant food signal to every avian in the neighborhood, whether they are winter residents or preparing to migrate south. I immediately cover any new planting of rye, whether a raised bed or a big patch, with a light row cover material such as Reemay or Agribon, lain flat on the ground directly over the seedbed. To secure the material against the wind, I lay boards or heavy metal stakes around the edges, and distribute light metal stakes or wooden poles in the central areas. The white sheets will readily float away in even a light gust if you are not careful. Any revealed bare spots will instantly be targeted by every hungry sparrow.

The rye will sprout under the protection of the row cover, especially in late fall when the nights get chilly. Let the rye push up against the material until the shoots are 1-2 inches tall and are safe from the birds. Once the cover is off, the rye will be a green lawn all winter.

Note: be careful when raking in the rye seed. If you rake back and forth too much you risk piling up the seed in thick patches in some areas and very thin spots in others. To maintain an even distribution of seed, I use more of a vertical chopping movement with the rake, to bury as much of the the seed as possible in place. It avoids mounding up the seed at the edges of the bed or in little ridge lines in the middle of a bigger area. When I sow the seed by hand, casting it evenly all over the bed, it definitely feels like an ancient agricultural rite of fall.

Summer Heat, and Plants for Fall

by Peter Heffelfinger

posted August 17, 2020

Summer Heat

The arrival of full-blown summer brings a rush of chores: watering early in the morning, keeping up with the waves of beans and the ripening tomatoes, or dealing with all the cucumbers and cabbages. But even amidst all the mid-summer harvest duties, little signs of the coming fall are creeping in.

The leaves on the pumpkin and winter squash plants are beginning to turn yellow and die off at the outer edges. It’s a signal to snip off the terminal buds and flowers of the vines, in order to concentrate all the remaining growth on the ripening globes. So too, for the standard tomato plants, now hung with the weight of ripe fruit: clip off any flowers at top of the vine, which will die off in the heat by the roof of a hoop house, or not have time to make fruit by autumn if they are grown outside. Note: cherry tomatoes, due to their small size and short maturing time, may continue to make ripe fruit at the ends of the vines as long as the blossoms are shielded from high heat (above 90F). And cucumbers, if given regular watering, will also continue to successfully generate small fruit at the end of the vines. The cukes may not be full-size, but they can always be used for quick, marinated pickle slices.

AK8MJH Aphids on Curly Kale

Mid-August is also when the aphids first show up on the terminal buds of the Brussels sprouts, which they did this year right on cue. Carefully folding back the tight leaves around the inner core, I doused the entire area with a mild detergent and water solution, using a small hand sprayer. After several follow-up checks, the first wave of infestation seems to have been halted. But the rule is always to keep on checking. The aphids will be back soon enough, particularly on the side-sprouts as they start to develop. And again, keep the plants watered in the heat. It’s a long way to the first chilling frost of fall, the point at which the Brussels sprouts start to turn sweet. It’s difficult to think of the traditional Thanksgiving vegetable side dish in the middle of August, but that’s part of the regimen for four-season gardening: your inner clock is always a season ahead.

Plants for Fall

While my recent transplants of cabbage, cauliflower, leeks and collards have survived the heat so far, I still am looking to fill in garden spaces that open up. At the tail end of the local nursery offerings of transplants for fall, I found bok choy, Napa cabbage, and some more cauliflower to put in once the current heat wave eases. They may bolt early, or only offer small heads, but they will still be useful even if just as mini-greens. And the garden space will be under cultivation instead of going to weeds.

As for direct seeding, I sow snow peas in late August for a quick fall crop in cool weather; as nitrogen-fixing legumes, they are an important part of the overall garden rotation plan. I will also put in some turnip seed, mostly for fall/winter greens rather than bulbs; turnips do better in the cool weather and will be past the root maggot fly season. Finally, some mustard greens will go in for a snappy addition to a salad or stir-fry.

Sometimes vegetable gardening can be seen as a horticultural chess game, thinking a few moves ahead, avoiding dangers, and working out how to get to the ultimate goal of a harvest. Except that as the chess pieces are removed from the garden squares each day, you get to eat them.

Fall Starts, and Sauerkraut Time!

by Peter Heffelfinger

posted August 10, 2020

 

Fall Starts

Mid-August is the time to get long-standing hardy winter transplants into the ground. I have late cabbage and broccoli in, as well as collards, along with a last planting of leeks, plus a few clumps of green onions/scallions. The challenge has been keeping them all protected from the intense sun we’ve had the past few weeks. I cover the fragile starts with large black plastic pots for several days or more, and then gradually expose them to an hour or so of early morning sun each day. I also make sure to water them daily to help them maintain turgor, or internal water pressure, which keeps them upright. When they’re finally rooted a bit, I shield them with the pot placed on the southern side to provide shade, and give them a grid of sun and shade overhead using leftover plastic garden nursery trays that have perforated bottoms for drainage. If it gets really hot, I lay strips of cardboard on top of the trays, to provide complete shade, but with a little light still coming in from the sides to keep a minimum of photosynthesis going.

Sometimes it takes a week or more before the plants stop wilting on first exposure to the direct sun. These are cool weather transplants that are being stressed by having to establish root systems in hot weather; they need the sun protection. Once established, they’ll be fine, but regular watering will be needed until fall. With autumn rains coming later and later each year, make sure they don’t dry out. Drought conditions and warm spells in September may cause them to go to seed prematurely instead of waiting for next spring. You want them to be mature by the end of fall so they’ll hold on through the winter, growing slowly and supplying  fresh green produce through the dark months.

Brine and Sauerkraut Time

Midsummer is also pickling season. I’ve been doing short-term salt brine cucumber pickles for several weeks, sometimes with fresh grape leaves laid on top, to keep all the spices from floating up to the surface. Recently I had to remove most of an Early Girl tomato plant that was showing signs of stem disease, so I had an unexpected box of green tomatoes to deal with before I’d even harvested a fully ripe tomato.

I used a standard N.Y. Deli dill pickle recipe for the halved tomatoes, along with garlic, spices, chili peppers, and for a new, extra kick, added horseradish leaves. After sitting in a cool corner next to the freezer for a few days, and once they taste pickled enough, the jar will go into the cold storage fridge. Surprisingly, I got most of the box of green tomatoes packed into a one gallon jar. It will bring back memories of the large jars of green tomatoes on display in the front windows of classic New York delicatessens.

With a crop of early green cabbage heading up, it’s also sauerkraut time. Not having made kraut in recent years, I started off with a plain version, just using sea salt, for the first gallon. The second gallon included the Middle Eastern herb sumac and a Jordanian green za’atar spice mix, for a Mediterranean take on kraut. With the third gallon, I’m trying Curtido, a South American salted cabbage recipe that includes sliced carrots, shredded garlic, chili peppers, and oregano. Lots of massaging of all that chopped cabbage to generate enough brine. Once the kraut is ready, it will join the pickles in the fridge set up for extended storage.

With all those cucumbers, tomatoes and cabbages bubbling away in their brine, the pantry feels like an indoor garden growing in the dark.

The Summer Pivot

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted August 3, 2020

The end of July is the mid-point in the growing season: most of the early spring crops such as peas and lettuce are succumbing to the heat; the broccoli and cauliflower are just about done for now, along with the artichokes. The main summer produce, such as beans, cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes are about to come into full production. All the gardening energy that previously went into raising and cultivating plants switches at this point to immediate plans for harvesting, consuming and preserving.

In August, when I’m working in the garden, the first thought each day is which vegetables need to be picked right now. Then, how am I going to prepare them once they’re in the kitchen, and finally how can I put up the inevitable surplus into storage jars or freezer packets. My first step is always dealing with the most fragile thing I just picked, usually the constantly flowering tips of the basil plants. Since the delicate leaves turn black very quickly, they go right into the blender along with garlic, olive oil and a little lemon juice, to make a base for either pesto (with Parmesan) or a pistou (without Parmesan) sauce. Both versions can be easily frozen in pint jars for a year-round supply of fresh basil. At this time of the year I keep a fresh jar in the fridge, mostly of a quick pistou, and put it on everything from toast to roasted eggplant.

My standard way of preparing crunchy vegetables such as snap peas, broccoli, cauliflower or green beans is to blanch and then immediately chill them in very cold water. They’re ready to serve cold along with a preferred dip, or just plain, since they have that touch of sweetness that comes with fresh picked produce. I think of them as vegetable antipasti, to be accompanied by a few olives and some cheese.

The snap peas are blanched for only a minute or two, the broccoli flowerets and green beans a bit longer. Wait for the green vegetables to turn a brighter, slightly iridescent green and then quickly remove to the cold water bath to stop the cooking process. A few ice cubes always helps, especially for the snap peas. Cauliflower needs to blanch a bit longer, to when it just starts to get soft, before transferring it to the cold bath.

The benefit of the blanch and chill process is that the vegetables are also now ready for freezing. Except for the snap peas, which are too delicate, any surplus can go straight into a freezer bag. To prevent ice build up make sure to dry the chilled produce off first and then squeeze out as much air from the filled bag. In the deep of winter the green or white bits of summer are welcome additions to soups or stews.

The flow of peppers has begun as well, led off by the sweet yellow Gypsy variety. Besides having them fresh, I also roast them for a Provençal style appetizer. Cut them in half, remove the seeds and stem, brush the skins with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt, and place skin side up on parchment paper in a roasting pan. I let them brown or char slightly under the broiler for a smokey flavor. I freeze the extras, stacked flat in quart bags for later use.

Currently in the garden, the Blue Lake pole beans have reached the top of the three parallel 8-foot high x 8-foot long trellises and are trying to go higher still. To keep the beans within reach, I am training the ever upward spiraling stems to go horizontally onto connecting rafter poles laid between the tops of the trellises. It is a daily task since the leaders, following the call of heliotrophism, constantly keep growing towards the sun. The aim is to have a leafy arbor between the trellises, with the later ripening beans from the upper parts of the plants hanging straight down overhead, making for easy picking, though it will take a step ladder to reach them. But the initial rush of beans will start lower down on the side walls of the trellises. An Arch of Beans.

Artichokes, Aphids, Cats, and Pickles — And Produce Stands!

by Peter Heffelfinger

Posted July 27, 2020

A Good Year for Artichokes

With all the added rainfall during the winter and extending into June, the artichokes had a banner season. The bed of the standard Green Globe plants produced 6-8 heads at a time over a month, while a solo purple type, Violetta de Provence, averaged 2-3 edible buds per week. The key is to pick when the heads are still young and tender, and the leaves are tightly held together towards the tip. Once the barbed leaves start to spread horizontally, their lower edible parts become tough, and the artichoke heart gets more fibrous. The bud will soon become a purple flowering thistle, a gourmet version of the Russian Thistle weeds currently appearing in the meadow next door and everywhere else.

When you cut the artichoke off the plant the knife should pass through the stem easily, with little resistance. If the stem has a bit of a harder core, the choke will be tougher, and the inner thistles more developed. On truly young artichokes I find that you can eat the entire heart without first cleaning out the immature thistles at the center.

While there was a super artichoke crop this year, it may signal the plants have reached the end of their 3-4 year growth cycle. They’re already visibly dying back and I doubt they’ll last through the summer, much less regenerate next spring. I’ll mulch the bed with horse manure in the fall and hope for the best. But if I have to plant new starts next year, it was certainly a great finale.

Powdery Mildew and Black Aphids

In the squash and pumpkin patch, the familiar powdery fungus, which usually arrives in the fall, has started to appear, first as a whitening of the leaves, and then as dead tissue forming on the leaf edges. I pluck off all the affected leaves as much as possible. On the advice of the expert gardener in the neighborhood, a retired nurseryman, I sprayed the patch generally with a solution of one part milk and six parts water. Seems to slow the mildew down, although the dry sunny weather helped as well. I hope the pumpkins and vegetable spaghetti squash make it to maturity.

The nurseryman’s own garden has healthy squash plants spreading in all directions, with much greater spacing between the hills, which may be a key to his lack of powdery mildew so far. His corn, however, has problems. Planted in mid-May, two weeks or more earlier than mine, it was already two feet high while my multiple sowings were still rotting in the ground. Now, his corn plants are tasseling prematurely at three feet tall, with the tassels infested with black aphids. The way in which our rainfall pattern has recently changed seems to be affecting usually reliable crops. My own corn is still small and will only be for decoration, if it matures. I hope the local sweet corn at the farm stands out on the Flats will be available as a backup.

Cats in the Garden

Cats and gardens always seem to go together. George and Charley, two young male litter mates living next door, are now daily visitors. At first, when the seedlings were small, and the beds were soft, their vigorous digging was not appreciated. They were able to get around or under any fencing, and loved playing inside draped tents of Reemay. But now that the plants are bigger, their attraction to fresh dirt doesn’t do much damage. A little sprayed water in their direction is all it takes to discourage them and they don’t seem to take it personally.

They’re becoming successful predators, seeking out the small bunnies that usually plague my beds, something I’m grateful for, along with the welcome absence of mice this year. I’m hoping they’ll also take care of the meadow voles that have been a major problem in the past. Charley, with the grey tiger stripes, is the more dedicated hunter, always on the prowl, and more standoffish. George, the orange buff, follows me around, mewing for attention. What they both really want, however, is to catch the birds, the one downside to having felines. I hope the robins, gold finches and swallows will see them coming.

The flip side is that the cats themselves are enticing young prey for the bald eagles that live in the tall firs just up the slope of Mt. Erie, as well as for the coyotes that have a den on the nearby ridge. A previous kitten lasted only a few months before disappearing. And lastly, the turkey vultures are always slowly cruising over the fields, looking for whatever remains.

[Editor’s Note: Roaming cats can take a toll on birds. To protect both birds and cats, consider keeping them indoors.

First Pickles

You know it’s summer when you can put up the first jar of pickles. This year I planted smooth-skinned Persian cucumbers for the first time, as well as a generic pickling type. I used the recipe for 5-day, salt brine pickles from Jerusalem: A Cookbook, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. Small Lebanese cucumbers were recommended, but I hoped Persian would be Middle Eastern enough. I used mostly Persian cucumbers, with a few of the generics added, to fill out a 1.5 quart jar, along with black mustard seeds, allspice berries, fennel seeds, black peppercorns, whole cloves, celery seeds, one dried chile, garlic cloves, and bay leaves. Fresh dill was also listed, but my garden dill wasn’t ready yet. I don’t think its absence will be noticed.

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Produce Stands Up and Serving!

And a chance for all of you to help our community:

Transition Fidalgo and Friends has put two Produce Stands in place in Anacortes. One is at 2509 H Avenue, the home of Warren Carr. The other is near the front door of the Library!

Please bring any extra produce you may have, so that we can share with those who may need some fresh food.

We hope to have the sides of the second stand decorated as nicely as the first stand way, and that this one was made by Dave Steele of the NW Corner Woodworkers Assoc, with Sound Cedar donating mostly of the materials.