Friday, September 7, 2012

Keep Your Garden Producing

We took last weekend off from writing in observance of Labor Day, but we spent a lot of time in the garden.  Now is a great time to take steps to maximize your food production for fall and winter.  Here are some tips to make your outdoor time pay off during the last weeks of summer.
Keep vegetables picked.
Beans, cucumbers, okra, peppers, squash and tomatoes will all bear better if you keep their fruits picked. (Yes, all these are fruits, botanically speaking.) Harvest beans when they are about the size of a pencil, and don’t let cucumbers get too fat. Pick okra when the pods are about three inches long, unless you are growing one of the varieties that remain tender when large. Pick peppers at whatever stage you prefer to use them, but don’t let ripe ones hang on the vines. Vine-ripened taste is why you grow tomatoes, but, again, don’t let mature ones remain on the vines. Besides impeding further production, overripe fruits attract insects and birds that will also damage unripened fruits.
Maintain vigilance for pests.
Bean leaf roller adult
The heat and humidity this time of year favor rapid insect multiplication. One or two bugs can turn into a horde overnight. Our late plantings of brassicas have been visited by both cabbage butterflies (Pieris rapae) and bean leaf rollers (Urbanus proteus). The latter also attacks brassicas, and metamorphoses into an attractive adult skipper that flits above our buddleia bushes, providing a good example of gardening yin and yang. See the photo at left. I enjoy the butterflies, but not their caterpillars. We killed 17 caterpillars in one bed and 47 in another one, despite weekly dustings with Bt. So far, we have kept the damage to a minimum, but all the transplants show at least a hole or two from munchers. The next sowing, around the middle of September, should produce plants that will go into the ground after cooler temperatures have solved the insect problem.
Another insect that can be controlled by hand is the ubiquitous squash bug (Anasa tristis). Its clusters of reddish-brown eggs [image] can be found on the undersides of the leaves of squash, pumpkins, melons and cucumbers. Larval squash bugs feed on the leaves and immature fruits of these crops. Adults [image] have sucking mouthparts and can do serious damage to squash, tomatoes and peppers by transmitting rot fungi. Squash bugs are prolific and require multiple control methods. Using a screen house to exclude them is one possibility. A simpler technique involves checking the leaves of the plants every few days and destroying any eggs you find. Sprays containing neem oil are moderately effective in repelling squash bugs.

Squash bug eggs

Squash bug
 Heat-stressed plants may attract tomato hornworms, or you may be growing moonflower vine (Ipomoea alba), night-scented tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris, N. alata) or similar evening scented white blooms. All these attract sphinx moths (Sphingidae), the adults of hornworms. The caterpillars can devastate a tomato plant in short order, and grow to the size of your thumb or larger. Inspect your plants and pick off the smaller caterpillars before they do extensive damage.
Renovate planting beds.
Remove spent plantings and add soil amendments, such as compost or peat moss, to your growing beds. If you are going to use them for a fall or winter green crop, add nitrogen in the form of cottonseed or blood meal. Bone meal or a small amount of wood ashes should be added to beds intended for cool weather root crops, such as carrots, beets or turnips. Too much nitrogen reduces yields in these crops, making them good candidates to follow nitrogen-hungry vegetables such as corn, spinach or brassicas.
For beds that will not be used again until spring, this is the ideal time to add wood ashes or lime along with organic amendments like shredded autumn leaves or pine needles. After the winter freeze, these materials will break down, improving the soil’s structure, moisture holding capacity and fertility.
If the soil in a vacant bed is in good shape, plant a cover crop to be tilled in next spring. Fast growing cool season annuals like alfalfa and annual ryegrass are potential choices.
Preserve your harvest
The seasonal abundance in your backyard and at the farmer’s market creates plenty of opportunities to preserve food for the coming months. Freezing is the simplest way to preserve foods such as beans, okra, carrots and peppers. Softer foods, like tomatoes, retain their texture best if canned, although they can be frozen for soups and sauces. 
Trim green beans and carrots to the size you want them. These vegetables should be blanched three minutes in boiling water, then drained and refreshed in ice water before being packed into freezer containers.
Wipe okra pods with a dry kitchen towel and drop into freezer bags or boxes. If you want the okra sliced, do this after thawing. Peppers should be stemmed, seeded and cut into the size you desire. Spread them out on waxed paper on a cookie sheet and freeze overnight. Then transfer the frozen peppers to freezer containers.
Information on home canning can be found in lots of places. Make sure you follow instructions precisely to insure food safety. The best foods to can for beginners are tomatoes, tomato juice, peaches, and various pickles and relishes. These acid foods naturally resist bacterial spoilage.
 Jams, jellies, preserves and conserves all employ sugar to preserve the food. They can be sweet, like strawberry jam, or savory, like chutneys and herb jellies.
Herb Jelly
Prepare an extract of herb leaves by placing one cup (packed) herb leaves in a large heatproof bowl. Cover with 1 cup of boiling water and allow to steep for 10 minutes. Strain. For each cup of apple juice called for in your favorite apple jelly recipe, add two tablespoons of the herb extract. Then proceed with the recipe as directed. This works especially well with “sweet” herbs such as basil, lemon verbena and rosemary. You can adjust the amount of herb flavor to taste.
Check out our In The Kitchen page for an easy and delicious dill pickle recipe.

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