Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thanksgiving Harvest

We hope everyone had a happy Thanksgiving Day with family and friends, as did we. It is always a pleasure to use homegrown ingredients in the kitchen, and the traditional Thanksgiving feast is no exception.  We had cabbage, carrots, sage, parsley, thyme, scallions and lettuce from the garden. I purchased sweet potatoes at the Farmer’s Market a month or so ago, and kept them in storage. For the remaining ingredients, turkey, cranberries, and so forth, we sought out local, regional, or organic products to the extent possible. As a result, I think we had one of the tastiest, most wholesome Thanksgiving dinners in recent memory, one to be thankful for, in fact.

Although the harvest in the coming months is likely to be rather small, a touch of homegrown here and there can take a meal from routine to special. Our number one cold weather gardening project is growing herbs. Fortunately, our climate is sufficiently mild that French thyme, Greek oregano, chives, sage and rosemary are perennial. Freshly cut herbs really perk up dishes made with canned, frozen or imported produce, and growing them saves a fortune. Typically, a little bunch of herbs at the grocery costs about $2.00, and the amount is usually more than I need for a couple of meals. So the herbs sometimes languish in the fridge and eventually wind up in the compost bin. Not so with homegrown herbs.

Three members of the carrot family, parsley, cilantro, and chervil, all grow well through the winter here. To be sure of a continuous supply, however, it is best to give them a bit of protection. I have a pot of chervil in the greenhouse, just in case something unfortunate happens to the ones growing out in the garden.  Parsley can be potted up and brought indoors for the winter, or you can start a few plants in late summer for the purpose. Outdoors, parsley grows and produces on all but the coldest days. If you grow in a coldframe, cilantro seeds can be started in succession all winter long. They grow slowly but will yield enough to garnish your favorite Asian and Latino creations.
Another herb that tolerates cold well is dill. However, you must time seed sowing so the plants will be a couple of feet tall before frost arrives. This can be tricky, since the seeds take a long time to germinate. My last sowing is only about six inches tall now, and refuses to grow taller. I suspect I will have a bumper crop of dill in the spring, but during cold weather I will have to be content with a few sprigs here and there.

Cabbage and carrots have been our best fall crops. We enjoyed coleslaw made from freshly picked ‘Savoy Perfection’ cabbage for Thanksgiving. This cultivar is recommended for fall sowing, and tolerates cold well, as do most plants with "savoyed" leaves. More heads of this and ‘Early Flat Dutch’ await harvest in the greenhouses. Carrots in outdoor beds remain crisp and delicious all winter, and we pull them as needed.
Spinach that we planted in September is now ready for picking, and this year’s crop is among our better efforts. We sow the seed heavily, then thin for baby spinach when the plants are four inches tall. When they reach six inches, we pick entire plants and leave others to grow throughout the winter.  By leaving larger plants with space between, we can extend the harvest until next February.

Our favorite local garden center, Stanley’s Greenhouse, is planning to offer grafted tomatoes next season. We can’t wait to try this new concept. Grafted tomatoes have been used for commercial production for years, but recently growers have begun grafting them for the home gardener. The idea is simple. An heirloom plant with desirable fruit characteristics is grafted upon a rootstock with disease and pest resistance. Presto! A plant with heirloom taste and hybrid adaptability. Monte Stanley told me he plans to offer five types, including the popular Cherokee Purple and the scrumptious Brandywine. Thomas Jefferson grew Brandywine tomatoes at Monticello, but they are difficult to grow in the Tennessee Valley because they lack disease resistance. This may be an opportunity for homegrown taste Jefferson would have appreciated.
If you are interested in grafted tomatoes, it might be wise to let them know at Stanley’s, as quantities will necessarily be limited.



Saturday, November 17, 2012

Saving Seeds and Reading Seed Catalogs

If you have not already collected seeds from your favorite annual flowers for next year, now is the time. Frost tends to harden seed coats and to dry out seed heads, maturing seeds that will survive the winter.  Save those little packets of silica gel that come packed with electronic equipment. Keep all your seeds in an airtight container in the refrigerator, and place a handful of the silica gel packs in the container. This keeps moisture to a minimum and maximizes storage life.
Properly stored in this way, many seeds will remain viable for a much longer time than is commonly stated in reference works.
Speaking of seeds, it won’t be long before the catalogs start showing up. For many companies, online catalogs are always accessible, although not all seed varieties are necessarily available at all times. With printed catalogs completed months in advance, availability of most, if not all, of the offerings is assured. I still enjoy flipping through the print catalogs, even  though it has become a guilty pleasure. Despite the use of paper and ink to display what can be displayed digitally, catalogs offer me a sense of nostalgia for the years when I first started gardening. I swear, some of the seed companies are still using photos from that era, too. I’ll bet the children depicted in some of these photos, holding a huge tomato or sunflower or whatever, have grandchildren by now.
In any case, it is time to start thinking about what to plant in the vegetable garden next year. I like to make plans for the next season while the experience of the season past remains vividly in memory. Based on last year’s successes and errors, the overall goal for next year will be to grow less of certain crops to avoid the time and effort entailed in producing more than we need. We are going to aim for quality, not quantity, for the majority of veggies, and focus on a few that we want in abundance for preserving.  Unless you simply enjoy having an exuberant garden and want to give lots of food away, both of which are admirable traits, mind you, is it really necessary to plant more than one eggplant, for example?

Crowding crops can be counterproductive. Cabbages grown too close together, for example, will produce smaller heads and lower total weight than fewer plants spaced farther apart would produce. Parsimonious use of garden space is important. Why supply the room, fertilizer and water for any but the minimum garden that will supply your needs? Our two person household can seldom accommodate the abundance of some veggies our relatively tiny garden now yields.

Thomas Jefferson directed that the vegetable garden at Monticello be planted with “a teaspoon of lettuce seed every Monday.” This embodies the approach backyard gardeners must take. Sow small amounts in succession. Aim for a continuous harvest, rather than a seasonal glut. This approach, incidentally, lends itself to experimentation with new varieties. For us, experimentation provides a lot of the pleasure we derive from growing veggies. We are already looking to next spring with anticipation.

Bring on the seed catalogs!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Start Ginger Now for Next Year

Ginger is in season. Three Rivers Market has a pile of it in the produce case, sourced from Mobile, AL. Lots of green shoots and eyes are present on the rhizomes. Now is the time to plant for a ginger crop next year. I mentioned growing ginger briefly in an earlier post. Here are more details on growing it in the Tennessee Valley.
Select a healthy looking piece at the market. It should have at least two green eyes showing. Mine cost less than $2. If you find a piece with green shoots, use them as a guideline for planting depth. Try to find organic ginger that looks and smells fresh. I have seen ginger in the supermarket that looks so dried out that it is unlikely to sprout. I have also read about possible chemical treatments to inhibit sprouting.
Put the piece of rhizome in a large pot. The roots need plenty of room to expand. Use any good potting soil that would be suitable for houseplants. Mix in some Osmocote, or an appropriate amount of balanced organic fertilizer. If using Osmocote, you need about a tablespoon per gallon of growing mix. Ginger is a tropical plant and a heavy feeder. Water well and place in a warm, sunny spot with your other tropical houseplants.
Ginger normally goes dormant during the dry winter season, so it may take a month or more for new shoots to appear. Do not allow the soil to become bone dry, but don’t keep it soggy, either. One approach at this stage is to let the pot drain overnight, then enclose it in a trash bag to maintain high humidity. Check periodically for new green shoots and remove the bag as soon as they appear.
Once it sprouts, treat the pot of ginger like your most prized tropical houseplant, with plenty of sunshine, regular watering and additional fertilizer if it begins to show any sign of yellowing. Protect it from cold drafts and keep it in a warm spot. Around next Memorial Day, when the night temperature will reliably remain above 50 degrees, transplant the plant to a sheltered spot with full sunshine, in soil that would be suitable for tomatoes. Ginger does not like cold, winds, drought or soggy soil. Take care not to disturb the roots too much when transplanting, to keep it growing steadily. Irrigate if rainfall is insufficient, and feed regularly. Ginger's requirements in this regard are much like those of the squash family, another group of tropical plants that need heat, water and fertilizer to produce well.
Ginger is unlikely to be attacked by pests other that slugs. Use your favorite method to control them.
By the end of October or thereabouts, the plants will start to yellow. This is a sign they are ready to enter dormancy, and that you are ready to dig. You should easily get two or three pounds of roots from the pot you started in November. Replant some, then peel and freeze the remainder.
For those with limited space, you can transplant the ginger to a larger pot on the patio or balcony in late spring. Choose a broad, relatively shallow container that will allow for maximum root spread. Container plants may require daily watering during the hottest summer days. With all the irrigation, you will need to fertilize frequently to keep them growing.
We continue to learn how to make the best use of our 6 foot x 8 foot plastic greenhouses. By way of review, we were disappointed that the failure rate is 100% on the interior tie-downs that secure the plastic cover to the steel frame. The tie downs supplied with the greenhouse (manufacturer specs here) are made with a white stretch cord that turns to powder after a few months in the sun. We will have to replace them with UV-resistant zip ties. This seems like a problem that could have been easily avoided without adding to the cost of manufacturing. We installed them almost exactly one year ago.
Even an unheated greenhouse can extend your growing season considerably, we are learning. We still have pepper plants untouched by the recent frosts, even though the temperature in the greenhouse has reached a low of 30 degrees F. Frost forms when solid surfaces are cooled below the dew point of the surrounding air, and below the freezing point. Many plants can tolerate temperatures below freezing, as long as frost does not form on their leaves. The reason is that the ice crystals physically damage the plants, which would otherwise weather the cold and resume growth when the temperature rises.
A greenhouse, coldframe or cloche provides some protection from falling temperatures during the daytime, owing to the greenhouse effect, but without added heat or a means of storing heat, the greenhouse can drop to freezing at night. Frost, nevertheless, will not form unless the temperature reaches the dew point. As the absolute humidity increases toward 100% saturation, the dew point approaches the ambient temperature. For example, at 35 degrees and 40 percent humidity, the dew point is 13.2 degrees. At 100 percent humidity, it is 35 degrees. You can find a dew point calculator for any given temperature, relative humidity here.
In a greenhouse, where the humidity is higher than the outside air, dew will form on plant surfaces at a higher temperature than it does outside. The presence of liquid water on the leaves then in turn protects the leaves from reaching the freezing point, where frost could form.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Trees and Shrubs for Fall Color

We’ve now had the season’s first light frosts here in the Tennessee Valley, and many plants are showing signs of entering winter dormancy.  Indian Summer brought especially beautiful foliage to the valley this year, while strangely withholding the autumn show in the mountains. In many spots, it seemed as if the trees changed color one day, then dropped their leaves the next. The autumn color display is affected by many factors, including the previous season’s rainfall amounts, temperature and day length.  That explains the variation in peak days and color intensity from one year to the next.
Home gardeners can take advantage of genetics to help guarantee that the trees and shrubs on their property put on a maximum show every year. Numerous cultivars have been selected for the brilliance of their autumn foliage. Here are some suggestions to help make next year’s display memorable.
Foithergilla gardenii 'Mt. Airy'
Among fruit and nut trees, many growers would probably cite serviceberry (Amelanchier species and hybrids) as among those with beautiful fall foliage. The cultivar ‘Autumn Brilliance’ can be grown as a small tree or multi-stemmed shrub. In addition to the bright red foliage, it offers edible fruit in summer. For larger properties, it is hard to beat a hickory for bright yellow leaves in fall. Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) is prized also for the quality of its nuts and the ease of shelling them. Nut trees typically grow very large (>100 ft tall) and take about 7 years to begin bearing.
The old standbys for brilliant fall color are sugar maple, Acer saccharum and red, or “swamp” maple, A. rubrum. Both get quite large. A more compact possibility is Japanese maple, A. palmatum. Numerous cultivars, such as ‘Osakazuke,’ have been selected specifically for their fall display.  Good ones include ‘Seriyu,’ ‘Bloodgood,’ and ‘Fall’s Fire.’ A nice one with multiple colors is ‘Kagero.’ For something a little different with shining, golden yellow fall foliage, try one of the dwarf cultivars of Ginko biloba, such as ‘Jade Butterfly’ or ‘Chi Chi.’
Among native species, chokecherry, Aronia arbutifolia, produces white spring blooms, red fruits and bright orange-red foliage. Shrubby Fothergilla gardenii or dwarf fothergilla, seldom exceeds six feet in height. Cream-colored, honey-scented flowers in spring are followed in autumn by a bright, multicolor display. Hearts-a-bustin’ (Euonymus americana) adds the colors of its interesting fruits to a mixed border, as will American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana). The latter’s fruit is edible, too. Blueberries (Vaccinium) turn various shades of coral, red and pink in the fall, depending upon the cultivar. Another colorful native plant is Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrechtii). It is a perennial that grows to the size of a medium shrub, about three or four feet in diameter. In spring, tall stems are topped with pale blue flowers, and in fall the whole plant assumes a bright golden yellow color.
From the first hard freeze to the middle of February is the best time to plant any of these trees or shrubs. Local independent garden centers stock them, or can order them for you.