Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cool Down Boosts Veggie Production

The cooler weather and half an inch of rain have conspired to give the late summer garden a boost in productivity. Suddenly, the okra plants are producing two or three pods at a time, rather than doling them out one by one. Beans that we were ready to pull up and compost have caught their second wind. I froze several pints last week, and am going out this morning to harvest more.

Likewise, the peppers are flush with blooms and new green fruits. Because they are growing on one of our walk-in coldframes this year, the peppers should continue to bear until Thanksgiving. If the ground remains warm, even a light frost should not stop their production.

If you don't have a coldframe, you can nevertheless extend the pepper season by at least a couple of weeks. When frost is predicted, uproot the plants, shake off most of the soil and place the roots in a bucket of water. Set the plant in a protected spot, such as a garage, and the fruits should continue to ripen normally for a while longer.

Bak choy, lettuce, mache, cilantro, scallions, chervil, spinach and radishes that I have planted in the last few weeks are all up and going strong. I intend to transplant bak choy this afternoon. The others will take a bit longer to get large enough. The radishes will stay in their container until they mature. I have finally learned to thin radishes as soon as they are about an inch tall, keeping them about two inches apart. When they are the size of a marble, pull every other one for salad, and let the remaining ones mature to golf-ball size.

Jerusalem artichokes are blooming along the roadside near our house. The plant is Helianthus tuberosus, a North American native that has been used as food for centuries. They are exceptionally easy to grow, to the point that they can become invasive if not restrained. A large raised bed is best, because the plants are confined. If you plant them where they can spread freely, be sure to harvest every single tuber each fall, or they can become hard to control. Also, cut the flowers before seeds form. Otherwise, self-sown seedlings can pop up all over the garden. They make beautiful cut flowers. The tubers can be prepared in a variety of ways, much like potatoes.

Dill stars in the herb garden at this time of year, with its bright yellow flowers that attract butterflies, and the savory leaves for potato salad and fish dishes. Basil plants can start to look worn out if you have harvested them regularly. It is time to consider removing them to make way for parsley, chervil and cilantro. Preserve the flavor of fresh basil by making pesto, basil butter, or flavored oil. Recipes for all these abound on the Internet. Mint is at its best at this time of year. Harvest the smaller leaves for the best flavor. Mint can be preserved as syrup. Make a simple syrup consisting of two parts water and one part sugar. Bring to a simmer, dissolving all the sugar, and remove from the heat. Add an ounce or two of mint leaves, crushed, to the warm syrup. Allow to cool overnight, then strain. Freeze the syrup in ice cube trays, then store the cubes in a zipper bag in the freezer. Use them to add summer flavor to winter fruit dishes, and to drizzle over ice cream or cake.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Rain Bodes Good Leaf Display

At my house, we have received almost a half inch of rain since darkness fell last evening. We sure can use it. Despite our record summer rainfall, we have had a dry month so far. The soaker we are receiving should go a long way toward making up the "water debt." Not to mention allowing us to turn off the hose and keep the water bill down. Abundant moisture at this time of year typically helps produce a beautiful fall color display.

September is the month for lawn care, the perfect time to aerate, feed, over-seed and otherwise spruce up your cool season lawn. This is also a great time to go after winter annual weeds by applying a pre-emergence herbicide. Both chemical and organic versions exist, and they really save a lot of work by preventing weed seeds from germinating. Weeds that do appear should be removed promptly, to prevent them from producing a supply of seeds for next year.

Planting fall vegetables can continue through the month if you choose varieties wisely. For example, all the Asian mustards, such as bak choy, mizuna and tatsoi, grow well here in the autumn, and they mature a crop quickly, typically in less than two months. Seeds sown now will be ready to harvest around Halloween. Spinach is another great fall crop. It takes around 70 days to mature, but owing to its cold tolerance will keep right on growing even after frost arrives. Lettuce, which takes around 60 days to mature, can also be planted now, but the window is narrowing, unless you have a coldframe.

American Beautyberry
Speaking of coldframes, now is a good time to put out snail and slug bait around them. The pesky mollusks start looking for warm places to spend the winter months, and will move into your coldframe, feeding on your tender crops. Place bait around the perimeter of the frame, not inside. You don't want to invite the slugs in, but rather to stop them at the border. As I have mentioned before, a copper barrier is also effective.

If you plant by the moon, now is the correct time for root crops, like radishes, carrots and green onions, all of which thrive in cool weather. Radishes mature in a month, and carrots and green onions can be left in the ground all winter for harvesting as needed. Choose fast-maturing carrots to plant now, however, as their growth slows dramatically after the weather gets really cold.

With the autumnal equinox arriving on Sunday, we have about 60 days before the weather gets really bitter, so better get those seeds out this weekend. The weather is supposed to be beautiful tomorrow, and after the rain, the soil will be perfect for sowing seeds.

Our Plant of the Week on Garden Talk this morning is a little know edible ornamental, American beautyberry. Botanically Callicarpa americana, this easy-to-grow native shrub produces abundant, glossy purple berries in fall. The fruits contrast beautifully with the golden yellow fall foliage, and they can be harvested to produce jam or wine. Bear in mind, however, that you need a lot of berries, as the amount of pulp on each one is quite small. They don't taste inspiring, but when juiced and mixed with sugar, the berries provide a tart, pleasant flavor. The juice also has mosquito-repelling properties.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Fabulous Fall

It is shaping up to be a fabulous fall, according to Dr. Sue Hamilton, director of UT Gardens. She and I co-host "Garden Talk" every Saturday morning at 8:00 on WKVL AM 850. We discussed the sudden cool-down (it was 49 degrees at my house in Powell this morning) and the recent rain, and concluded that we can expect a beautiful fall season.


Lettuce 'Jericho'
Now is the time to plant any of the cool weather greens crops, including lettuce, spinach and kale. Often overlooked are the various Asian greens, such as mizuna and bak choy, which perform far better here in fall than they do in the springtime. These Asian mustards are typically ready to harvest in about six weeks, and are ideal for integrating into planters or beds along with herbs and flowers.

Create a completely edible container for your front porch with violas, cilantro, parsley, mizuna, red mustard, Swiss chard, beets, miniature dianthus and various other leafy greens, edible flowers and cool season herbs. With so many good plants to select from, the container combinations are endless. One of my favorite herbs for fall and winter is chervil, a seldom seen member of the carrot family. It looks like lacy parsley, but packs a clean, fresh flavor with overtones of tarragon, and it makes a great substitute for tarragon in winter, when the cold weather keeps the tarragon from growing. It makes a good "filler" for a mixed planter and would look great with the bold, red foliage of beets and yellow and white viola blooms.

In the ornamental garden, various members of the huge Aster family dominate the show. Among the most popular is Michaelmas daisy or New York aster, Symphyotrichum (formerly Aster) novae-belgii. This low mounding perennial covers itself with blue, purple, pink or white flowers from September until frost, and is easy to grow in ordinary soil in full sun. The related New England aster (S. novae-angliae) offers a similar color palatte to its cousin, but on a taller plant more suited to the back of the border. These, along with most other fall asters, including chrysanthemums, will provide the best floral display and resist wind better if cut back hard before the end of July.

A less frequently seen choice is smooth aster (S. laevis). The cultivar 'Bluebird' covers itself with sky blue flowers in autumn, and tolerates dappled shade better than the other members of its genus. This and the two previous species are all native to the eastern United States and thus remain relatively free of pest or disease problems with minimal attention once they are established in the garden.

Numerous other native American asters put on a show along nearly every roadside this time of year. These include the sunflowers, black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, ironweed, Joe Pye weed, snakeroots, coreopsis, bidens, and several species of goldenrods. All these beautiful native asters are sometimes unfairly blamed for seasonal pollen allergies that many people experience. This is completely untrue. All the asters with showy flowers are pollinated by insects and do not release their pollen into the air. The real culprit is wind-pollinated ragweed (Ambrosia sp.), yet another member of the aster family It produces insignificant, yellow-green flowers and millions of grains of pollen from every plant. Ragweed is commonly seen blooming alongside its showier relatives in sunny, open sites with disturbed soil from late August until the first freeze. If you, like me, get itchy eyes and a runny nose this time of year, ragweed is to blame.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

September Is the New April

For gardeners in the Tennessee Valley region, September can be as busy a month as April is. The mild weather we usually experience at this time of year allows us to grow a "third season" of vegetable crops.

Keep picking summer vegetables, like okra, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and squash, to keep them producing. Most of these will bear right up until frost damages them.

From now until the end of the month is a good time to transplant any of the cole crops: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and kohlrabi. Plants are available at garden centers throughout the region. If you don't find the plants you want, make a note for next year to start them yourself from seeds, which should go into trays in late July through early August. Allow four to six weeks from seed to transplant size.

Cilantro is a great fall crop.
Now is also the perfect time to start seeds of lettuce, spinach, bak choy and other fall greens. While you can direct sow these seeds and thin after they germinate, I find it more efficient to start them in 36-cell trays. I sow two or three seeds per cell, then thin to one per cell as soon as true leaves appear. After thinning, I feed lightly with timed-release fertilizer, and leave the plants in the trays for about 30 days total. When the plants are ready, set them out at the spacing recommended on the seed packet, or about six inches apart when in doubt, and fertilize again. Allowing the plants plenty of room to grow will yield nice, uniform heads of lettuce. Spinach handled this way can grow leaves the size of ping pong paddles. Bok choy will produce harvestable heads within two weeks of transplanting.

Scallions and cilantro also lend themselves to starting in cell trays. Put a pinch of seed in each cell. Do not thin. When the plants are three inches tall, transplant the entire plug to the garden. This will produce a bunch of onions or a clump of cilantro from each plug. Harvest by pulling the whole bunch. You will get clumps roughly the size of those bunches you find in the grocery store.

You still have time to plant garlic and shallots. They should be in the ground by the end of September, however, to encourage the biggest yield next summer.