Saturday, December 13, 2014

Planning for Next Year

We are still tidying up here and there from last season's garden, and what should arrive in the mail last week but the new catalog from Park Seed (Greenwood, SC). I have awaited this catalog with great anticipation for more than 50 years, and each holiday season it never fails to delight. Only a few years ago did they modernize some of the photos. The pictures of children that used to appear, holding a giant sunflower, for example, or a really large tomato, were so old that many of those people no doubt have grandchildren by now. For sure, some were older than I am, because I remember seeing them in the catalog when I was a child.

Seed catalogs remind us that the best time to plan next year's vegetable garden is right after the holidays. Not only do the catalogs fill your mailbox, or inbox, at that time of year, but also thinking about a lush garden of vegetables and flowers is a great way to fight the post-holiday blues.

I note with pleasure that this year's catalog offers many new varieties of vegetables that are compact enough for container growing, something that is becoming every more popular in urban and suburban settings. When space is at a premium, a few large containers on a patio or balcony can produce a surprising amount of food. Besides a wide variety of herbs, lettuce and other greens are an excellent choice for containers.

Among the new cultivars that caught my eye in the Park Seed catalog:

Nasturtium 'Phoenix' is an interesting new selection with flame-like flowers in a variety of colors. Trailing nasturtiums are great "spillers" for a container herb and veggie garden.

Pak Choi 'Toy Choi' grows only 6 or 8 inches tall, perfect for a porch box or planter. Ready in 40 days, you can raise a crop before the weather warms up, getting double duty from the same container.

Tomato Genuwine from Park Seed
Arugula 'Speedy' provides another opportunity for a quick crop ahead of warm season vegetables like tomatoes. This new arugula selection matures in only 30 days.

Carrot 'Atlas' produces roots somewhat like radishes. It would make a good companion, in fact, for 'Park's Beauty Blend' radishes.

Among warm season crops, I am anxious to try Eggplant 'Patio Baby,' which produces mini-eggplants on plants remaining under two feet tall.

Pepper 'Sweet Pickle' and its hot, spicy cousin 'Cayennette' would look great flanking an entryway in 16-inch pots.

Another intriguing trend that plant breeders seem to be following: crossing two heirloom vegetables to produce a new hybrid. A great example is 'Genuwine' (pictured) which is the offspring of Costoluto Genovese and Brandywine. Expect higher yields, hybrid vigor, and excellent flavor.

We'll have more suggestions from the catalogs as they keep rolling in.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

New Vegetable Gardening Book

My new gardening book is out. Idiots Guide: Vegetable Gardening would make a perfect gift for the gardener in your life, especially if, like so many other Americans, he or she is planning to grow some food next season. Although the book won't be available until January 6, 2015, you can pre-order from Amazon  now. It is available in paperback or e-book format. The book covers all the basics of growing vegetables in containers or raised beds, and gives detailed information for all the most popular vegetables for backyard production. Advice on when to plant, when to harvest and what to do with the harvest make the book a useful compendium, even for experienced gardeners. If you want to grow part of your food next year, my new book is a great place to start! 

Home food gardening has for the first time surpassed flower gardening as a popular pastime, and the only thing we Americans spend more time at that gardening is watching TV. Therefore, food gardening has become a huge trend. It is easy to understand why.

Many people have concerns about pesticides or chemicals used in food production. If you grow your own, you know exactly how it was raised. Further, nothing can beat fresh, homegrown vegetables for taste or nutritional value. The moderate exercise involved in growing a great garden helps your joints, burns calories, and can be managed by people of all ages. Perhaps most importantly, you will get a lot of satisfaction from growing and cooking food for yourself and your family. Scarcely any other activity is more uniquely human than growing food.

When the holidays are over, the bleak days of January provide opportunity to read and plan for a bountiful garden in spring. With the help of my new Idiots Guide: Vegetable Gardening, even your very first vegetable garden will reward you with fresh, delicious produce all season long.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Have a Sustainable Holiday Season

Now that the turkey roaster (or deep fryer) has been put away, the tetrazzini or hash consumed, and the good dishes washed and stored, it is time to think about the Christmas season. Our neighbors have been putting up decorations this weekend, which gave me the notion to blog about sustainable Christmas decorations.

Your first choice should be the evergreens in your yard, or perhaps that of someone you know. Fresh cut pine boughs, along with spruce and Leyland cypress, are likely to be the most widely available. Don't overlook broadleaf evergreens, such as holly, also. Just take care not to remove too much foliage from any one tree or shrub. If someone you know is pruing or removing a tree, take advantage of the bonanza. Freshly cut evergreen boughs will remain green and pretty longest if they are stored in a cold, dark place until you need them. A plastic storage box on the back porch would be ideal.

You can use florist wire to form individual branches into garlands, or to secure branches to a wire form to make a wreath.

Another time-honored way to make Christmas decorations is to use pine cones, sweet gum fruits, acorns, nuts and other natural objects creatively. A bit of red ribbon and some silver paint turns a pine cone into a decoration.

If you are not the creative type, seek out seasonal decor at the farmer's market or produce stand. You will find an array of wreaths, garlands, and other items, all crafted locally. Also visit a local, independent garden center for blooms, such as poinsettia and Christmas cactus, to help brighten up your all-natural holiday.

When it comes to lights, we do recommend taking advantage of available technology. LED holiday lights consume a tiny fraction of the electricity of their forebears, and do not pose a fire hazard, as candles do.

If you do choose to purchase holiday items, consider that plastics not only require fossil fuels as raw materials, but also for the manufacturing process and to transport them here from Asia.

Let's all work together to make this holiday season a sustainable one.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Seed to Supper

My wonderful agent, Grace, has succeeded in selling another book. My third sale of 2014 is Seed to Supper, which will be published by HCI. My new publisher is best known for the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series, which has sold millions of copies worldwide. I am exicted to be working with such a successful nonfiction publisher.

Seed to Supper will include both growing instructions and recipes for about 40 varieties of garden vegetables, herbs and small fruits. The book is organized according to the amount of growing space required to produce a reasonable quantity of each crop. Thus, we begin with herbs and greens that can be grown in a sunny window or under lights, and progress to outdoor containers, raised beds, and finally edible landscapes. The book will feature over 100 recipes for every course from appetizers to desserts, along with instructions for preserving seasonal flavors in pickles, jams, jellies and other products.

If you are interested in testing one or more recipes, please indicate your interest in the Comments section below. Everyone who tests three recipes will receive an autographed copy of the book. Everyone who tests at least one recipe will be mentioned in the Acknowledgements section of the book. I am presently compiling the final recipe list, and will send everyone who expresses interest an email with testing guidelines and the list of recipes from which you can select. First come, first served.

Recipe testers will be doing every reader of Seed to Supper a huge service. Although I try my best to present clear instructions for every recipe, only in practice can we be sure anyone who tries to make the dish with succeed.

Please let me know ASAP of your interest, and thanks!

Friday, November 21, 2014

The First Hard Freeze

We received our first hard freeze earlier this week, when the thermometer dipped into the 20s. We harvested everything usable the day before the freeze was predicted, and now have the refrigerator stocked with lettuces, sorrel, and a nice mess of turnip greens.

With the arrival of the cold, the garden is pretty much done for the season, although the Lacinato kale is unfazed. This extremely hardy variety will continue to provide leaves for cooking off and on for most of the winter, although it will only grow if the weather warms up sufficiently. This variety is sometimes called "dinosaur kale" in the produce market, because the leaves look like they might be modeled after a reptile's skin. They are thick, dark green and highly nutritious. Kale can be used in any recipe calling for collards, turnip greens or other cooked greens.

This is the time of year to think about comfort foods loaded with rich sauces, protein and pasta or other carbs. Two of the most difficult things to provide from a home-scale garden are protein and grains. Both need to be produced in significant quantities, even for a small household, and sufficient space is seldom available. Legumes provide one of the most economical sources of protein, especially when purchased in dry form in the bulk section of the market. I always stock up on several kinds of beans, field peas, and peanuts in the fall, when the new crops will have arrived in the market.

Grains are also cheap when purchased in bulk. Rice, flour and cornmeal are the primary ones around our house. Gluten-free eaters will want multiple kinds of rice, and alternative grains such as quinoa, amaranth, and millet.

With regard to flour and cornmeal, as a native Southerner I insist upon White Lily flour for biscuits and pastry crust. I use all-purpose flour for everything else. I also prefer White Lily self-rising cornmeal mix for making cornbread that approximates my mother's version. It also makes a crispy breading for okra or fritters. I like coarse organic yellow cornmeal for polenta, but the grains are too large for breading, as they absorb too much grease and become gluey.

Mom's cornbread is easy and delicious, thanks to the White Lily, but it is not truly an old-fashioned recipe. To duplicate my grandmother's cornbread requires more effort. First, it is necessary to locate cornmeal made from regionally grown Tennessee Red Cob corn. This yellow corn was the only one my grandfather grew for making meal. It is still around, but difficult to find and expensive. Next, you will require a package of Benton's bacon. This is easy to come by, and is produced from the same type of heritage breed hogs my grandfather raised. You also need farm-fresh, free range eggs and real churned buttermilk. Both are now readily available. (Find all these products at Three Rivers Market.)

Old-Fashioned Tennessee Cornbread

In a 9-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat, cook three strips of bacon until crisp, remove them from the skillet and drain on paper towels. Save the bacon for another use, or crumble it and add it to the cornbread before adding the hot bacon drippings as described below. Reserve the drippings in the skillet. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Set the skillet in the oven to heat while you prepare the cornbread batter.

In a bowl combine 1 cup of cornmeal, 1/2 cup of White Lily flour (NOT self-rising), 1 teaspoon of baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Mix these ingredients together with a wire whisk. In a separate small bowl, combine one whole egg and 1/2 cup of buttermilk, whisking to combine well. Make a well in the cornmeal mixture and add the liquid, whisking with a few quick strokes. Add more buttermilk if necessary to make a smooth batter. Using protective gloves, carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven and pour the bacon drippings into the batter. Quickly set the skillet on the stovetop and whisk the batter to combine. Pour the batter immediately into the hot skillet. It should sizzle. Return the skillet to the oven and bake until lightly browned on top, about 35 minutes. The cornbread should move when the skillet it shaken gently. Remove from the oven and tip out the cornbread on to a heatproof plate. Serve immediately.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Winter Arrives Early

Welcome to winter! It's only a couple of months early. Records were broken for snowfall all over our region, although none at all fell here at the house. East Tennessee received snow before Colorado's Front Range area, something that has not previously happened in living memory. Some areas of South Carolina received snow on November 1 for the first time since records have been kept. If this is any indication of the winter we have in store, we should all be making some preparations.

With the falling temperatures, the garden has rapidly entered dormancy. Our first killing frost occurred overnight, as evidenced by brown leaves and collapsed, mushy foliage. Turnip greens, collards and kale are all unfazed, however, and will continue to provide nutritious meals for another month, at least. The snap peas should hang on for a while, too. We will probably harvest the last of the pods today, but the shoots, the outermost 8 inches of each branch, will remain usable until we have a really hard freeze. I like to add pea shoots whole to stir fried dishes. Add them at the end, as you would spinach or another delicate vegetable. They are also good in other dishes where you might use blanched spinach as an ingredient.

Our last planting of lettuces has also fared well. They are located in a spot that is somewhat protected by tall grasses, and have escaped frost damage. Combined with a few of the cherry tomatoes that continue to ripen in the basket on the kitchen counter, they will make a few more salads before the weather finally does them in. Sorrel is another green crop that does not mind the cold too much. It adds a lemony note to salads, and can be added to soups, too. The leaves get particularly large and succulent during cool weather. Sorrel is a perennial, although in the Tennessee Valley it may heat-kill during a particularly oppressive summer season.The plants form a mound about two feet in diameter, and are easy to grow if you have a suitable spot. Sorrel likes water, and protection from harsh afternoon sun.

With the prospect of a bad winter, now is the time to make preparations in case you are without electricity, or the roads are impassable. Here in East Tennessee, it can sometimes take a long time for road crews to reach all the secondary roads, owing to the fact that most winters are mild. If you live away from the city as we do, it is possible to be stranded for a day or two. Therefore, we always try to anticipate problems and prepare for them.

If you have preserved some of your garden harvest, you should have a well-stocked pantry. Make sure you keep staples on hand. Flour, sugar, coffee, tea, rice, dried beans, oil and cornmeal constitute my short list. Don't forget paper products and soap. If you have pets, make sure to keep their foods on hand, too. We have gas heat, which is unlikely to be interrupted. Nevertheless, we keep a tank of propane and a propane indoor space heater in the garage, just in case. We also have a butane stove, and a couple of extra cans of fuel, so we can cook even if power for the electric range is out. This is also a good time to check your medicine cabinet for first aid items. If anyone in your family takes prescription medicine, be sure they have enough on hand to last a couple of days.

If you have children, also be prepared with games or whatever other activities you deem appropriate, in case they are home from school for a while.

Generally speaking, our worst winter disruptions only last a day or two. Taking a few simple precautions can make the difference between a miserable time and a relatively pleasant one.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

October Bounty

October brings all sorts of goodies. Apples, pumpkins, glorious foliage, and mushrooms. Lots of mushrooms, in fact. Local foragers have been out in the woods, bringing back treasures like the chicken of the woods mushrooms I purchased today at the Market Square Farmer’s Market. Mossy Creek Mushrooms was the vendor.  I received helpful suggestions on preparing the mushrooms, and an invitation to a mushroom log cultivation workshop offered by Mossy Creek Mushrooms on Sunday, October 26, beginning at 2:00 at Panther Creek State Park near Morristown. Find more information on the Mossy Creek Mushrooms Facebook Page.

Chicken-of-the-woods, Laetiporus sulphureus, typically appears on trees in October. Recent mycological research indicates that this fungus only occurs east of the Rocky Mountains. Several similar-appearing species constitute a group once thought to contain only a single species. The “true” species lives on hardwood trees, often oaks, and the fruiting body appears some distance off the ground. Related species growing on conifers or near the ground should be avoided, despite the superficially similar appearance. In fact, unless you are an experienced mushroom forager, you should rely on the pros to find local edible mushrooms.

Chicken-of-the-woods should not be consumed raw. Clean them of any surface debris, and place in a saucepan. Cover with water, add a big pinch of salt and a dribble of vinegar. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Drain, rinse, and use as you would a cooked chicken breast.

Vegan “Chicken” Noodle Soup

2 ounces chicken-of-the-woods mushroom
1/3 cup EACH chopped onion, celery and carrot
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 bay leaf
¼ teaspoon dried thyme leaves
3 cups vegetable stock
2 tablespoons extra-thin egg noodles
salt and freshly ground black pepper
minced fresh parsley

Prepare the mushroom as described. Chop into bite-size pieces. Reserve. Place the olive oil in a large saucepan, add the onion, and heat gently, covered, until the onion is softened. Add the celery, carrots, bay leaf, thyme, stock, and the reserved mushrooms. Adjust the heat and simmer, covered, until the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes. Add the noodles, salt as you prefer, and a few grinds of black pepper. Cover the pan and continue to cook until the noodles are done, about 5 more minutes. Serve garnished with minced parsley.

The farmer’s market was also brimming with late summer produce. Plenty of tomatoes, squash and eggplants are still available. Hot peppers are really at peak season now, and cool season greens and brassicas are back. I saw beautiful kohlrabi and cauliflower. Greens, from arugula to tatsoi, seemed to be everywhere. Seeing the bounty at the market today, all from regional farms, reminded me that Knoxville used to be known as the “asparagus patch of the East Tennessee garden spot.” Our soils and climate are ideal for a wide variety of vegetables, and the forested mountains to our east and west support a mind-boggling diversity of edible wild plants, including chicken-of-the-woods.

Speaking of wild plants, now is a good time to go looking for elderberries. The juice makes great jelly and if you have enough you may want to try making wine. Sumac, an important spice in Middle Eastern cooking, as well as in the cuisine of Native Americans, is showing off its bright red, pointed seedheads as if they were flaming torches. Cut the entire head and allow to dry at room temperature. Sumac adds a lemony flavor. Persimmons will be ripening, but you should wait until after a frost to gather them. Wild grapes are ripening, and several cultivated varieties derived from them are available at the farmer’s market.

Now is also a great time to stock up on vegetables that store well without much fuss. Turnips and kohlrabi should go in the crisper or in a root cellar. Sweet potatoes, pumpkins and winter squashes all keep best in warm, dry conditions, such as a dark closet or pantry. Many varieties of apples keep well if cold and dry. Check with the farmer for advice on storing any of the late season produce you see at the farmer’s market.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Careful What You Wish For

"Be careful what you wish for," the old saying goes, "or you might just get your wish." That pretty much covers the situation regarding rain hereabouts. After the driest September in living memory, we have been subjected to October rains that my grandfather would have described as "toad stranglers." Although I don't have an accurate gauge any longer, I would say we are in the 3-4 inch range over the last few days.

As a result, the fall greens crops are lush and abundant, and the snap peas are covered with blooms. Ornamental plants that had not begun to go dormant due to the lack of moisture in September have taken on renewed vigor after repeated soaking. Given the timing of the rain, we can perhaps hope for an especially beautiful fall foliage display this year.

This is a great time of year to salvage the last of summer flavor by making herb-flavored jellies. Tender plants, such as many rosemary and lavender cultivars, will succumb to the cold before long. It makes sense to gather them now. Recipes are abundantly available online. You can substitute one herb for another in any of them, as long as you maintain approximately the same weight of herb leaves. One ounce is a typical quantity. For leafy herbs such as basil and lemon verbena, this could be a quart of leaves stripped from the stems. In the case of tiny rosemary leaves, roughly a cup will produce enough essential oils to flavor a batch of jelly. Be creative! We are going to try lavender and curry leaf jellies for the first time this year, and will keep you posted on the results.

In keeping with our promise to steer the focus of this blog post to local businesses, local products and benefits to the local community, I want to take a moment to call your attention to the veritable renaissance going on along Knoxville's Central Avenue corridor. For many years, this area of town was in decline, with lots of empty store fronts and delapidated industrial buildings dominating the landscape. Recently, however, new restaurants and shops have opened, and the area is fast becoming a great place to dine and shop. Beginning at Broadway and moving north, one finds Holly's Corner in the old Corner Lounge location, with Magpies Bakery next door. Behind them is a place for yoga enthusiasts.

On up the street is Broadway Restaurant Supply, a professional warehouse that does not discourage home cooks from shopping. I have purchased some of my favorite, and least expensive, kitchen utensils there. Expect no frills, however.

At the intersection with Baxter Avenue is Three Rivers Market, surely with one of the deepest selections of local, regional and artisanal products one might find anywhere. They also offer a fine hot buffet with salad bar featuring both vegetarian and carnivore options. Go another block north and you arrive in Happy Holler, so named because of the profusion of bars that once lined this block. Here you will find Central Flats and Taps. The pizzas are great and there are taps to suit every beer taste.

Continuing north, you will move into Knoxville's food history zone, where the two oldest restaurants in town, Rankin and Original Freezo, still do it the way it was done in the 1950s. And then further on out, at the intersection with Springdale, you can discover just how good a sandwich can be at the North Corner Sandwich Shop. While you can always opt for the nearly-perfect Italian sub, try one of the specials. This little shop distinguishes itself with creativity and fine ingredients, such as house-made corned beef.

Next time you have a few extra minutes for lunch, I suggest a drive up Central. Any of the restaurants I mentioned will give you great taste and good value, and they are all locally owned.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Changing Seasons

We are beginning to see touches of color in the trees. Poison ivy makes its presence known to birds, who eat the seeds, by turning bright red while most of the trees are still green. If the ivy has no berries, it remains green much longer.

In the vegetable garden, the beds are overflowing with cool season greens and we are still picking okra. Tonight's menu will therefore include a pot of gumbo and some "kilt" greens. For those who do not speak Appalachian, "kilt" = "killed," meaning that the fresh greens are cooked in a hot dressing until they are wilted. The dressing involves bacon fat and vinegar, and the dish is usually garnished with the bacon that provided the fat. Two strips of bacon will render enough for a 12-inch skillet full of greens. After frying the bacon, transfer it to paper towels. Add about 2 teaspoons of your favorite vinegar to the fat in the skillet, along with a few grinds of black pepper. Raise the temperature until the dressing boils, add the washed greens, and stir fry until the greens are wilted and tender, about 3 minutes. You can also add onions or garlic to suit your preference. This is amazing with turnip greens, but any greens will do. You can mix different types, provided they are approximately the same texture. Otherwise, lettuce may overcook before the kale gets done, for example.

Our cousin from New Mexico sent us a bunch of the famous Hatch chilies, and we have been making salsa this weekend. Canning salsa is a great way to use up the last of the tomatoes. Find specific recipes for canned salsa online and follow them to the letter. Do not experiment with the ratios of tomatoes and acid components (vinegar or lime juice) to other ingredients, or you risk dangerous spoilage. You can, however, adjust seasonings or substitute one type of pepper for another without risk, so long as the total amounts remain the same.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Harvest Time

September is the month of the Harvest Moon (which arrives on Monday the 8th) and with good reason. From late tomatoes and squash to fall favorites like pumpkins to"second spring" lettuce and scallions, in September the Tennessee Valley has it all. No wonder the Tennessee Valley Fair has traditionally been held in September. If you are interested in agriculture at any level, the fair is worth a visit. There will be exhibits of home canning, various cooking demonstrations, horticulture exhibits, fruit and vegetable competitions, and showings of all kinds of domestic animals, from rabbits to cattle. The fair is a great starting place if you think, for example, that you might like to have a few chickens. You can get up close and personal with numerous breeds. Take advantage of the opportunity to talk to the exhibitors, too. You will never find better advice.

September also marks the time of the big Fall Plant Sale at UT Gardens. If you are looking for special plants for your landscape, you can find some great choices at the Fall Plant Sale. It begins at 9:00 AM, Saturday, September 27th. UT Gardens Members get a sneak preview on Friday, September 26.

You still have time to plant fall greens. Members of the mustard family, turnips, bak choy, and arugula, will all mature a crop from seeds planted now. We have about a month before we can reasonably expect frost, and two months before a hard freeze. Fall greens can take a bit of frost, so plant away. The warm soil will result in speedy germination.

This is also the month for warm season herbs in great abundance. If you find yourself with an excess, make an herb jelly. Here is a master recipe that works with mint, basil, tarragon, lavender, rosemary and probably most other herbs.

Herb Jelly
2 ounces herb leaves, stripped from the stems (about 1 quart loosely packed)
2 1/4 cups boiling water
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 cups granulated sugar
1 drop food coloring (optional)
3 ounces (one pouch from a 6-ounce box) liquid fruit pectin

Have ready four half pint canning jars with lids. I like to keep them warm in the water bath canner.

Place the herb leaves in a saucepan and pour the boiling water over them. Stir to thoroughly wilt all the leaves, crushing some with the spoon to release the aromatic oils. Bring the liquid back to a boil, cover, remove from the heat and allow to steep for 10 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve. Measure out 1 2/3 cups of the herb infusion and place in a large pot. (Use any remaining to flavor iced tea.)

Add the lemon juice, sugar and food coloring (if used) to the pot, place it over medium-high heat and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. When the liquid is at a rolling boil that does not stir down, add the pectin all at once. Continue boiling and stirring for one minute.

Working quickly, skim any foam from the top of the jelly, using a large metal spoon. Ladle the jelly into the hot jars, leaving 1/4 inch head space, apply caps, and process for 15 minutes in a boiling water bath.

Herb jelly can be used as a condiment on roasted meats, and is delicious when served atop cream cheese on crackers.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Plant Fall Greens Now!

The coming week will be your last opportunity to plant fall greens. Some of the best performers for this time of year are kale, mustards, and turnips.

Kale and other brassica plants are showing up in the garden centers. It is too late to start broccoli and cabbage from seed, but kales, especially the really cold hardy ones like 'Red Russian' and 'Lacinato,' will be able to make decent growth before the first frost. The plants are sufficiently cold hardy to provide a harvest well into December.

With about 45 days remaining until the first expected frost, look for greens crops that will mature quickly. Top choices include the turnip variety 'Seven Top,' and various mustards. Mizuna, tatsoi and bak choy. These Asian mustards will all mature before it gets too cold, as will both curly and red European mustard varieties. Also in the mustard family, radishes will have plenty of time to mature before frost. You can get in 2 or 3 sowings, a few days apart, between now and the end of the month. Another good choice is arugula. Plant small amounts every few days for a succession of crops in October.

All these greens are good in salads when they are small, and can be used as cooked greens when they get larger.

Garden centers also have lettuce plants in cell trays. If you don't already have some lettuce seeds germinating, the commercial plants will give you a quick crop or two before frost reduces the quality.

While you are at the garden center, why not purchase a row cover tunnel for your garden? Using one of these tunnels will protect late crops from frost, and extend the growing season by a week or two at least. Given the cost of fresh salad greens, the small investment in a row cover is paid back the first season in our garden.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Market Square Market Rocks!

Anyone in the Knoxville area who has not experienced the Saturday morning farmer's market at Market Square has missed one of the premier markets in the country. In fact, we ranked #20 out of a list of 101 top farmer's markets in the U.S., compiled by The Daily Meal. You can check out the complete list here. Clarksville and Memphis also made the list.

After I left the radio studio this morning I headed over to Market Square. Reasons for the high ranking became immediately apparent. For one thing, fresh produce and other food products, like honey, grass fed meats, and pepper sauces, dominate the offerings from vendors. Additional vendors selling hand-crafted items, such as soaps, woodcarvings, and pottery out-numbered those hawking retail merchandise and trinkets. This balance is a decided advantage for any market hoping to attract people serious about local food.

And what an abundance of local food we have! I lost track of the number of tomato varieties, but this being August everything from tiny currant tomatoes the size of a big blueberry to giant slicers and everything in between were on offer. Cherokee Purple is now so ubiquitous it is almost unfashionable, but those in the know keep buying it for taste alone. Beautiful eggplants in an array of colors, squash in assorted shapes, sizes and colors, and non-GMO sweet corn contributed to the bounty.

One of my favorite booths is operated by Jim Smith of Rushy Springs Farm in Talbot, TN. Jim specializes in growing chili peppers, and when I say specialize, I don't mean he grows one or two kinds really well. He grows dozens of different kinds and turns them into powders, spice mixes and salt-brine-fermented hot sauces that are just terrific. He told me the selection will only get better as we move later into the season.

Among the craftspeople, Dancing Edge Earthworks caught my eye. The selection of hypertufa pots should satisfy the most demanding gardener.

The find of the day could have been either the foraged wild yellow chanterelle mushrooms or the speckled butter beans, still in their tough-skinned pods. I opted for the butter beans, as the chanterelles will still be around next week. (I hope.)

Learn more about the Market Square Farmer's Market here. Bon appetit!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

6 Great Things To Do With Tomatoes

If you are like us, this time of year you are inundated with tomatoes. We have had an especially good year, both for the heirlooms and hybrids we grew. Our outstanding favorite among the hybrids is Whopper, developed by Park Seed Co. in South Carolina. It is a determinate tomato, but it branches profusely at the base, forming a "bush" about four feet in diameter. It definitely needs a sturdy wire cage to contain its exuberance. It also produces loads of tasty tomatoes, of uniform size and with small cores, the ideal tomato, in our view, for home canning. Check out the photo. The majority of the fruits are like these, about 8 ounces each. They are also delicious on a sandwich. Here are seven things to do with the seasonal abundance of tomatoes.
1. Freeze Them
Tomatoes freeze easily. Just wash, core and cut them in halves or quarters. Drop into freezer containers and place in the freezer. When thawed, the skins will slip right off and the tomatoes can be used for soup or to make tomato sauce.

2. Can Them
Tomatoes are easy to can because of their acidity, which helps prevent spoilage. You need some special equipment for canning, but the investment is small and the equipment will last many seasons. A large water bath canner with a rack to hold the jars is the main item. If you invest in a jar lifter, canning funnel, and a pair of stainless steel tongs, your canning experience will go much more smoothly.

For instructions on canning tomatoes, visit the web site of the National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia. There you will also find instructions and recipes for many other home canned foods.

3. Juice Them
Tomato juice is canned in exactly the same way as whole tomatoes. A gallon of cored, quartered tomatoes will yield about a half gallon of juice. Tomato juice can be seasoned with small amounts of salt, sugar or spices, like garlic powder or black pepper. It is worth noting that some upscale bars are serving a bloody Mary made with heirloom tomato juice.

4. Sauce Them
Skin, core and chop a couple of quarts of tomatoes. Place them in a saucepan, bring to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently, for 20 minutes. Press through a sieve to remove the seeds. Return the tomato sauce to the heat, add you favorite herbs, a big pinch of salt and some chopped onions, and cook slowly, stirring frequently, until the sauce is thickened. Toss with pasta or use on pizza. Alternatively, cool the sauce to room temperature, transfer to a suitable container, and freeze.

5. Make Stewed Tomatoes
Stewed tomatoes were a popular side dish in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, when long cooking was thought to render vegetables more healthful. Peel and core tomatoes and cut them into chunks. Place in a saucepan, bring to a simmer, and cook 15 minutes. Season to taste with salt, pepper and a little sugar. Cool to room temperature and store, covered, in the refrigerator for a week.

6. Make Tomato Pudding
If you happen to have any leftover stewed tomatoes, you can make them into tomato pudding. Oil a baking dish, and line the bottom with stale bread. You can use cornbread, biscuits, yeast bread, or sourdough. Each will give the dish its own character. Break the bread into chunks about the size of a grape. You want a layer about an inch deep on the bottom of the dish. Top the bread with stewed tomatoes, adding a little more salt, sugar and pepper. If you have enough tomatoes, repeat with a second layer of bread, again topping with stewed tomatoes. Sprinkle the top with grated cheese and allow the dish to sit at room temperature for a half hour, to allow the bread to soak up some of the tomato juice. Place in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 minutes, or until the top is light brown and the edges are bubbly. Serve warm or at room temperature. This basic recipe can be varied endlessly with different seasonings and additions. That is why is was so popular with farm wives, like my grandmother, a century ago.

To Remove Skins
To skin tomatoes, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Select and wash the tomatoes. Using a serrated knife, cut an "X" into the blossom end, cutting just through the skin. Drop a few tomatoes into the boiling water. After 20-30 seconds, remove them with a slotted spoon and transfer to a big bowl of cold water. You will see the skins split immediately, if they have not already. The skin will now easily slip off. Core the tomatoes, transfer them to a bowl, and repeat the process until you have peeled all you need.  

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Preserving Summer's Bounty

If you are like most gardeners in the Tennessee Valley, you will have a glut of produce during the month of August. We have been canning and freezing like mad. Tomatoes, corn, vegetable soup mix, and beans have been our primary focus.

Today, however, I wanted to share our discovery regarding one of the best ways to preserve authentic summer flavor without too much work. The secret: frozen gazpacho. The recipe can easily be double or tripled.

John's Frozen Gazpacho Base
1 green pepper, trimmed and seeded, coarsely chopped
4 pickling cucumbers, trimmed and seeded, coarsely chopped
6 firm ripe tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped
1 cup chopped onions
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
18 large fresh basil leaves
1 tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves
1/4 cup Sherry vinegar, or other vinegar or lemon juice
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon paprika

Working in batches, chop the vegetables and herbs in a food processor. The mixture should be a bit chunky. Do not liquefy everything. You can also do the chopping by hand. Transfer everything to a large bowl and add the vinegar, salt and paprika. Stir well to combine. Chill overnight, covered.

Transfer the soup base to freezer containers, label and place in the freezer.

To serve, allow the soup base to thaw overnight in the refrigerator. Combine with an equal volume of chilled stock or water. (More or less, to achieve the consistency you prefer.) Serve cold, garnished with croutons, sour cream, and chopped scallions.

This makes a delightful substitute for a salad course. The bright flavors are a welcome change from the winter taste of supermarket produce.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Our Living Deck Canopy

Way back in 2011, we bought one of those deck canopies with the nylon roof and mosquito netting all around from a big box retailer for whom one of us worked at the time. With employee and other discounts, I think the cost was about $200. The very first winter, we left the nylon roof in place and it was destroyed by snow load. Such is life. We should have taken it down, as the instructions warned us.

So the following year, we searched and searched and searched for the replacement roof. We still had the mosquito netting curtains, and we were certainly not going to toss out the steel frame. We managed to find a less-than-satisfactory replacement roof. It fit, kind of, and would keep us from getting wet. Trouble is, the replacement roof was not treated to withstand ultraviolet light, as the first one had been. Thus, by fall, it was looking faded and had begun to develop small tears here and there. We had to toss it, and by this time the cats had taken a toll on the curtains, too We were left with only the black steel skeleton. We tried hanging baskets and shelves full of potted plants during 2013, and darn near ruined our deck with all the watering and fertilizer.

Faced with the prospect of having to dismantle and discard the entire thing, we decided to give it one last chance. Jerry made a string trellis by attaching sisal twine to the edges of the deck, and running it up to the top of the canopy frame. He also criss-crossed the roof supports with twine. This was done back in April. As soon as the weather was warm and settled, in early May, I planted seeds of two types of gourds in the soil at the edges of the deck. Along one side I planted three hills of "martin" gourds. These make a pear-shaped fruit just right for conversion to a purple martin house by cutting a hole in one side. Along the other side, I placed two hills of luffa gourds. These are the source of the all-natural luffa bath "sponge."  The accompanying photos show the "roof" from above and below, last Friday. The foliage is dense enough to prevent light rain from hitting us, and the shade is dense, cool and perfect for the miserable, muggy July weather around here. You can see, if you look closely, that fruits are beginning to form. They will hang down inside the canopy like Chinese lanterns. So far, we have had no luffa gourds, although their bright yellow male flowers have appeared in abundance. As you can see from the photo, the martin gourd flowers are white. The majority of the flowers open at night, leading us to suspect they are pollinated by moths, as well as the small bees we see on them during the daytime.

The gourds have made such an interesting and beautiful canopy, we plan to try other vines next year. It would be unwise to grow gourds repeatedly in the same spot, so next year we will try runner beans and/or hyacinth beans, to help restore the soil fertility. Gourds need heat, water, and rich soil to create that huge mass of foliage. For the earliest possible start on the season, plant the seeds indoors in peat pots. They will need about 30 days after germination to get large enough to transplant. The plants should go in the ground in early to mid-May, when the soil is warm and the weather is settled. Leave them until frost kills the vines, at which time the ripened gourds can be harvested. Martin gourds will keep all winter in a warm, dry location, and can be used for all sorts of craft projects, not just birdhouses.

We are learning about luffa and will have more to day about this gourd as our experience increases.

One of the best things about this canopy is the cost. The ill-fitting replaccement roof we ordered was about $75. Two packets of gourd seed set us back less than three bucks, and I still have seeds left for next year.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Rain, Finally

Finally! Some serious rain. According to the National Weather Service, our area has had a deficit of about six inches for the year. It appears we may be on track to make up much of that deficit during the current rain event. This could not have come at a better time for many crops, such as cucumbers, melons, and squash. These vegetables are about 90 percent water, so having enough soil moisture as the fruits are maturing is important.

The downside of the rain is the greater tendency for many of our warm weather crops to develop problems with fungal disease. Cloudy, wet weather favors mildew, blights, and other problems. If plants have been spaced properly to allow for good air circulation, you have the best defense against these problems. We can also hope that the rain will let up for a while and a period of sunshine will ensue. This is the ideal situation, allowing foliage to dry off and the pace of photosynthesis to increase.

From now until about the end of August, vegetable gardens around the region should be at their peak of variety, abundance and flavor. If you plan on doing some home canning with produce from the farmer's market, this is a great time to stock up. We have regional markets every day of the week, and the big market in Knoxville takes place on Wednesdays and Saturdays at Market Square.

Backyard gardeners will be harvesting everything from late beets to early corn. Just about the only crop that won't be ready yet is okra, which usually waits until August to make its debut. We have had great success with heat tolerant lettuce varieties this year, and as a result we still have a couple of heads in the refrigerator for dressing sandwiches. Having lettuce past the Fourth of July has been a real treat. In case you missed the earlier post, the variety we like best is 'Jericho.' It is sort of a cross between romaine and butterhead, and remains sweet and tender despite the punishing heat we had in early July. We will definitely plant more of this one next year.

As long as the rain hold up, about the only chore you have in the garden at this time of year is weeding, which the rain actually facilitates.

And don't forget, it's time to start thinking about fall planting. If you intend on growing cabbage, broccoli or another member of that group, July 20 is the date for starting seeds. This gives you plants ready for the garden by August 20, and allows 90 days of growth before the first freeze, expected around November 20. The average first frost date for this area is October 20, so frost-tender crops will need to mature in under 90 days if they are planted now. Cucumbers and summer squash are a possibility. Virtually all the cool season crops can be planted between now and August 20. Top choices are beets, carrots, leeks, peas, and turnips. Fast maturing leafy greens, such as spinach and mustards, should wait until mid-August or the seedlings may die from summer heat.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Chattanooga Road Trip and Squash

Last Sunday we drove down to Chattanooga to visit their Farmer's Market. Located at 1829 Carter Street, just across the street from the baseball stadium on Riverside Parkway, the market is housed in the massive First Tennessee Pavilion. Last Sunday was Food Truck Festival, and there must have been 50 food vendors lining Carter Street offering everything from good ole' down home barbecue to Vietnamese ban mi. We settled on jerk chicken ban mi with a glass of Thai tea from another vendor, and elbowed our way through the crowd to one of the tables located at the far end of the pavilion. A local party band was blasting out covers from the 70s and 80s, about right, judging from the age of the crowd around us. Boomers love farmer's markets, apparently. We are always swarming, every time I visit one.

Only a small percentage, perhaps one in 8 or 10, of the vendors was selling farm-fresh produce, plants or nursery stock. The rest were offering everything from hardwoods for DIY smoking enthusiasts, to the sorts of trinkets you might expect at any flea market or county fair. There was plenty of handmade soap, prepared food items like salsa, and a few truly unique offerings.

One of the best vendors at the market, in terms of unique and clever crafting, are the "Pallet Girls," identified on their business card as "Donna and Catrina." They were offering a variety of well-made and attractive planters crafted from old shipping pallets and other recycled materials. Reach them here. We especially liked the pre-planted herb and miniature tomato gardens, like the one in the photo.

We made several selections from among the many varieties of squash and tomatoes offered for sale. One tomato in particular was especially delicious, but we were unable to obtain the name, as the vendor was swamped with customers.

All in all, the Chattanooga Sunday Market is worth the trip, and especially if you are visiting Chattanooga for one of the other local attractions. It is open from 11:00 to 4:00.

Borer-Resistant Squash
We are growing 'Tromboncino' summer squash this year, from seeds we ordered from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Because this squash is the species Cucurbita moschata, it is immune to predation by the squash vine borer. We were skeptical, because most C. moschata are winter squashes, with orange flesh and a hard outer skin. But these, at least while relatively small, are tender and delicious. We will have more to say about this squash as we continue to harvest them at various sizes. But one thing is for certain: we have had no borers!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Greasy Beans and Dry Weather

We are harvesting 'Lazy Wife Greasy' beans in great numbers right now. The "greasy" bean type has a mutation that makes the pods feel oily. They also keep better after picking than other types of beans. In addition, they remain stringless, even when the length reaches a foot! Bloom stems routinely carry 5 to 7 pods. The flavor is excellent, either prepared "Southern style" by long cooking with pork fat, or "Northern style," simmering them in chicken stock until they are barely tender.

The weather remains dry. Despite thunderstorms all around us, we have received much less than an inch of rain this week, forcing us to irrigate on a daily basis. One problem with any vegetable garden project is the demand for water. An inch of rain on a 10 by 10 foot bed equals 60 gallons of water. Keep this in mind when watering. A deep soaking is better than a daily sprinkling.

Try to water at a time of day when the leaves of plants can dry before dark. Early morning is best, but you can also water late in the day if you allow time for leaves to dry. Wet foliage encourages fungal disease. This is particularly true for cucurbits, which need plenty of water now that fruits are forming. This plant group is especially susceptible to mildew, when kept too wet.

Today is the Summer Solstice. We have about two more weeks to plant tomatoes, peppers and cucurbits for late harvests. July 4 is traditionally the last day to plant here in the Valley region. By July 15, it is already time to start a few fall crops. Seeds for fall brassicas, celery, and parsley can be planted in late July, in order to have plants ready to move out in August. If the heat keeps up the way it has been, this will pose a challenge unless you have an air conditioned greenhouse.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Late Spring Harvest

June is a great time in the food garden. We have potatoes, peas, and tarragon in abundance, so all we need is a protein, and dinner is done. Parsley and mint are both thriving right now, too, as the oregano prepares to bloom and its flavor becomes harsh and unpleasant. We have also permitted ourselves to pluck a few sprigs of basil, although the plants remain small. Fresh basil is just too good to resist. Although we have been pulling a few for the kitchen, our sweet red onions are not yet ready to harvest. Some of them are already as large as softballs. We have plenty of green onions from our late March planting of Evergreen White Bunching seeds from Mayo Seed Company, Knoxville.

Straw Bale Update
All the bales are planted, and everything looks really good. We had a couple of bales that collapsed, but the plants in them are still looking healthy. It is too early to tell about harvest amounts or quality, but so far the plants in the bales are behaving much like plants elsewhere in the garden. We will have more to say on straw bale gardening as summer progresses.

Elsewhere in the Garden
From the appearance of our Lazy Wife Greasy beans, we will soon be canning them to enjoy later in the year. The vigorous vines are hanging full of beautiful beans. Greasy beans are Southern heirlooms that lack hairs on the pods, giving them an oiled appearance. The "lazy wife" part of the name is because the beans are stringless. They can be cooked whole or simply broken in pieces without stringing, a boon to any lazy wife (or husband) who finds stringing beans a chore.

The Tromboncino summer squash vines threaten the entire neighborhood, they are so vigorous! This is the only summer squash cultivar that is ignored by squash vine borers, a pest that in some areas makes squash production nearly impossible without extraordinary measures to prevent the insects's gaining access to the plants. We have ours confined to a trellis, but this is not really a plant for a small space garden.

We grew Irish Cobbler potatoes this year, and despite them being attacked repeatedly by flea beetles, we are going to have a decent harvest. This old fashioned cultivar, said to have been developed in New England in the Nineteenth Century by Irish immigrants, bears both red and white tubers on the same plant. The potatoes have rather deep eyes, making them a little trouble to peel. However, this is their only drawback. The flavor is superb, and they are good keepers. They also have the perfect texture for potato salad, a required side dish at every summer barbecue and picnic. At the end of this post I have included a recipe for Southern Style Potato Salad. Mine is based on a recipe from the restaurant at the Soul Food Museum in Atlanta. I have changed a few things to reflect the way potato salad was made in my family. It is important for the eggs and vegetables to be chopped into dice about 1/4 inch or a little smaller. This must be done by hand. Using a food processor will produce a mushy texture.

Southern Style Potato Salad

1 pound Irish Cobbler potatoes
3 eggs
2 tablespoons yellow mustard
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup finely diced onion
1/2 cup finely diced celery
1/2 cup finely diced sweet pickles (not sweet pickle relish)
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon finely minced fresh parsley
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook potatoes until they offer only slight resistance when pierced with the point of a knife. Drain in a colander, and when cool enough to handle peel and cut them into small dice. Reserve the potatoes in a large bowl.

Place the eggs in a saucepan and add cold water to cover them by one inch. Bring slowly to a boil, remove from the heat, cover the pan, and let stand 20 minutes. Drain, fill the pan with cold water, and let stand until the eggs are cool. This may require two changes of cold water. Peel the eggs, and cut them into small dice like the potatoes. Add to the bowl with the reserved potatoes. Stir gently to combine.

To the bowl add the mustard, vinegar, sugar, mayonnaise, onion, celery and sweet pickle. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add more mustard and/or mayonnaise, if desired, for a creamier salad. Chill overnight to blend the flavors. Garnish with paprika and parsley just before serving.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Straw Bale Gardening II

The bales are cooking, and some have almost completed the conditioning process. We should be ready to plant those in the next few days.

Mushrooms have appeared in some of the bales. They appear to be "shaggy mane" mushrooms, Coprinus comatus. They are harmless, and if they show up in one of your bales, you can ignore them. They are edible, but I do not recommend eating any mushroom without confirmation of its identity by an experienced mycologist. DO NOT EAT the mushrooms that appear in your straw bales.

In order to get a jump on the season, we have started several of our plants in containers, so they will already be up and growing when we transplant them to the bales. We took this step to facilitate producing images for the upcoming book. However, it is not necessary merely to produce a crop. We have about 140 days remaining in the growing season. Plenty of time for summer favorites like tomatoes, cucumbers, corn and squash.

Now is also a great time to check garden centers for clearance pricing on both vegetable plants and spring blooming perennials. Bloomed out perennials are often marked down to a fraction of their former price. If transplanted now and kept well watered for the coming months of hot weather, they will be just as beautiful as their more expensive bench-mates come next spring.

Tomato plants can become leggy by this time of year, but you can rejuvenate them for a late crop. Remove the plant from its container and loosen the root ball with your fingers. It won't matter if you tear off a few roots. Strip all the leaves from the stem, leaving only two or three clusters at the top. Remove any flowers or flower buds that are present. Put two tablespoons of organic vegetable food in the planting hole. Bury the stem to within an inch of the lowermost leaf cluster. Water in and mulch well. The stem will root all along its length, and soon these plants will be vigorous and stocky, ready to support a bumper crop of delicious tomatoes.

Southern food is trendier than ever this season. I just read an Associated Press report on the resurgence of sorghum, both the molasses-like syrup and the grain, as an ingredient in fine dining restaurant fare. Sorghum-glazed foie gras anyone? How about sorghum and grits ice cream? Seriously.

Sorghum grain is being used as a substitute for couscous, and demand is growing by leaps and bounds in these days of gluten-free everything. Who would have predicted this grass, brought to our shores by Africans in bondage, would find a modern following? I remember seeing it growing here and there in my neighborhood when I was a child. Theoretically, sorghum is a suitable grain crop for a small space garden. The grain-bearing varieties are short and stocky.

I will have to explore at the market in search of a local source of sorghum syrup. It's pretty good on biscuits. I cannot say regarding foie gras.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Time to Plant Tomatoes

Mother's Day is the traditional time to plant tomatoes in East Tennessee. Another way to determine the correct planting time: the dogwoods should have dropped their blossoms and be fully leafed-out. These are convenient ways to remember that tomatoes should be transplanted after the soil temperature is above 65 degrees.

I know, I know, many people plant tomatoes in April in hopes of an early harvest. They use all sorts of season extenders in hope of having ripe fruits before anyone else in the neighborhood. Nevertheless, despite all the effort and expense, these tomatoes ripen around July 4, just like everyone else's. The most effective way to get a jump on the season is black plastic mulch, applied around the base of the plant at transplant time. This will help increase the soil temperature. But it is unlikely to shorten the time to maturity by much more than a week.

Assuming you are planting some tomato plants this weekend or next week, here are a couple of tips for a bigger harvest:

1) Plant deeply. Remove all but the top three clusters of leaves and bury the stem deeply enough that the lowermost leaf cluster is about an inch above the soil line. This encourages development of a large root system to support the eventual crop.

2) Remove blooms. Pinch off all blooms that are present on your transplants. These will sap energy, and although they may produce some early fruits, the overall harvest will be reduced.

3) Feed early. Put a couple of tablespoons of balanced organic fertilizer in the planting hole. As growth resumes about a week after transplanting, you can also side-dress the plants with another round of food. Feed about every two weeks until blooms appear, then stop feeding. Too much nitrogen after blooming begins will reduce the crop.

4) Mulch immediately. Apply two or more inches of mulch as soon as your plants are in the ground. Mulch not only helps maintain even soil moisture, important for tomatoes, but also prevents soil splashing up on the leaves during a rain. Soil can carry the spore of disease organisms such as Fusarium and Verticillium.

5) Grow hybrids. If you are an inexperienced gardener, grow modern, disease resistant hybrids and buy your heirloom tomatoes at the Farmer's Market. Heirlooms are delicious, but many of them have no resistance to common diseases, and can be a challenge to grow in our hot, humid climate.

Also, if you use tobacco, wash your hands thoroughly before going into the tomato patch, and don't use tobacco in the garden area. Tobacco can transmit TMV (tobacco mosaic virus) to your tomatoes.

I will be giving a presentation this afternoon at 2:00 at UT Gardens, as part of the annual Bloomsdays event. Stop by the South Greenhouse, say hello, and catch my talk on growing hardy orchids in the Tennessee Valley. The event is open today and tomorrow from 9:00Am to 5:00PM. I hope to see you there!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Welcome the Warm Season

We took time off for Easter, and enjoyed a beautiful spring weekend. Hopefully, you did, too.

Now that the frost date (April 20) has passed, we can breathe easy, and get going with warm season crops.

I am planting our first tomato plant this weekend. It is the fast-maturing, indeterminate hybrid ‘Whopper.’ The plants were started by Stanley’s Greenhouses, and are the perfect size for transplanting. To ensure the formation of a good root system, remove all leaves, leaving only the top two or three leaf clusters, when you transplant tomatoes. Bury the stem all the way up to within about an inch of the lowermost leaves. Also pinch out any bloom clusters present at transplant time. You want the plants to direct their energy into establishing a sturdy root system before fruiting begins. Apply a dark colored mulch, or black plastic, around the base of the plants to help warm the soil, which will still be on the cool side for tomatoes.

Whopper matures in 70 days, so we should be enjoying them after the Fourth of July.

Install tomato supports while the plants are small. This makes the job of tying them later far more easily accomplished. Indeterminate tomatoes will grow to the height of their support and then, if topped, will spread horizontally. Make sure the support you provide is sturdy enough to handle the weight of both the vines and the fruit, even in bad weather. Thunderstorms are likely in late afternoon all during the warm season. You don’t want wind gusts bringing down your tomato planting. The bed in which I am planting Whopper is surrounded by wood posts, to which I plan to attach wire cages to increase the height.

All commercial wire cages are too short for indeterminate tomato plants, and must be supported with additional stakes or posts. Serious gardeners should consider permanent trellises made of the steel mesh used to reinforce concrete. It comes in pieces about 4 feet wide by 7 feet long and can be held upright by various means to create a permanent vegetable trellis.

Not only tomatoes, but also pole beans, cucumbers, winter squash, melons, peppers and peas will benefit from the support provided by this type of trellis.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Busy Time in the Garden

Although we are not out of the woods yet, in terms of frost danger, we can begin thinking about warm weather crops. And it is a busy time for vegetable gardeners. Already we are beginning to harvest greens, green onions, and asparagus, while getting ready for the main season.

Basil seeds can be started now for transplant in May.

The window for lettuce and other salad greens is closing. Select fast-maturing cultivars like Black Seeded Simpson. Start seeds for Romaine lettuce, which is more heat tolerant, in cell trays for transplant in three weeks. They should mature in June with no problems. One of the best heat-tolerant Romaine types we have grown is Jericho.

Scallions can be started from seed and will be ready to harvest along with lettuce planted now.

The traditional time in East Tennessee for planting beans is Good Friday, April 18. Beans with brown seeds will germinate better in cool soil. Wait another month before planting white-seeded beans.
Tomatoes can be seeded now in small pots and will be ready to transplant by mid-May. Hold off on peppers, especially chili-types, until after the end of this month.

Cucurbits can be started indoors now, using peat pots to prevent root disturbance. If you cannot provide bright light and warmth, you will have better luck with direct seeding during May and June.
You still have time to get in a crop of potatoes. Select a fast-maturing variety, such as Irish Cobbler, if you want to use the space for another crop later in the season.

All herb plants, with the exception of basil, can go into the ground now. Be prepared to protect tender varieties, such as some rosemary cultivars, with a cover, should we experience a late frost. Parsley and cilantro will both tolerate light frost with no problem.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Welcome Rains

We had an unusually dry March, typically our wettest month. The rain that arrived this week to start the month of April has resulting in visible growth in the garden. Plenty of time remains for planting early crops, and some venturesome folks are planting cucumbers and summer squash. This is risky, not only because we could yet have a frost, but also because the soil remains cool and seeds may simply rot.

Cucurbits can be started indoors in peat pots, allowing them to be transplanted without root disturbance. Cucumbers, summer and winter squashes, melons and gourds can all be handled this way, giving you the earliest possible harvest. As with all such attempts to "beat" the season, you run the risk of losing the plants to a late cold snap, but you do have the opportunity to replant should that happen.

If you do start warm season transplants indoors, make sure to give them as much sun and/or artificial light as possible. Cucurbits, tomatoes and peppers all need strong light to develop properly. If you cannot provide good light for the seedlings, you will have better success with plants purchased at the garden center. Weak seedlings seldom recover their full potential, even after transplantation.

Plenty of time remains to plant lettuce, other greens, beets, radishes, carrots, potatoes, leeks and onions. Continue succession plantings of annual herbs, such as parsley and cilantro, but hold off on planting basil, which requires warmth. Parsley established in the garden now will continue to provide leaves for cutting until next winter, if not harvested too heavily. Try to have enough plants so you can gather a nice bunch with only one leaf taken per plant. If you use a lot of parsley, make room for a dozen. Flat-leaved Italian parsley grows best through summer heat.

Good Friday, April 18, is the traditional time to plant beans in the Tennessee Valley region. As a hedge against a cold snap, choose a brown-seeded bean for your early crop. These varieties are less likely to rot in cold soil than are white-seeded beans.

If you choose to push the season on warm-weather crops, it may be worth investing in floating row cover, available at most garden centers. This lightweight artificial fabric provides a few degrees of frost protection while allowing light and air to reach the plants. It is best to support the cover with metal or plastic hoops across the growing bed. Complete kits are widely available, or you can fabricate your own using PVC pipe.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Get Your Garden Going!

If you are not planning on doing some gardening next week, you should be. The weather in the Valley is predicted to be gorgeous, birds are singing, bees are buzzing, and buds are bursting on fruit trees. The month between the equinox and the average frost date of April 20, is the prime time for planting cool season crops, either from seed or started plants. The weather (hopefully) will not heat up until June, so you have roughly 70 days for crops to mature. That is enough for peas, lettuce, spinach, carrots, beets, radishes and green onions to be direct seeded, and sufficient for broccoli and cabbage transplants from the garden center to go in the ground.

Now is also the time to plant cilantro and parsley seeds, or to transplant starts of these cool season herbs. Quick maturing greens, like arugula and various mustards, will also have time to crop before the weather gets too warm and they go to seed. Don't forget that spring-planted cilantro will bear an abundant crop of coriander seed in July if it is allowed to bolt. I always plant extra just for this purpose.

Most parts of East Tennessee are receiving rain this weekend. That, together with the warm spell coming next week, should bring earlier seeds out of the ground. Be sure to thin radishes almost as soon as they are up, for best root production. Keep them about 2 inches apart each way.

Thin green crops like spinach and lettuce to stand at least four inches apart each way. Improved air circulation around the plants helps prevent fungal attacks.

Vegetable gardeners who use raised beds should bear in mind that one DIS-advantage is their tendency to dry out rapidly. Check below the soil surface every day or so in dry weather, and irrigate before plants begin to show signs of stress.

Cool spring weather is ideal for flea beetles, which may attack newly-emerged potato foliage, filling the leaves with pinholes. A floating row cover over the bed helps prevent the beetles from gaining access to your plants. Because they are chewing insects, flea beetles are susceptible to ingestion poisons like nicotine, spinosad, pyrethrins, and neem oil. All these are suitable for organic vegetable production when used according to label directions.

And finally, I know everyone is just dying to plant tomatoes, but wait at least another month. If the soil is too cold, they will just sit there, anyway, and you won't get tomatoes any earlier. Tomato geeks who want to employ extraordinary measures like the "Wall O Water" are welcome to have at it, but the rest of us should just wait until the soil warms up. There will be plenty of time for late tomatoes, peppers and beans to follow all the early crops that will finish up in June, also.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Root Crops and Dwarf Berries

Get those root crops in the ground! March is a great time to plant beets, carrots, onions, turnips, potatoes and radishes. If you planted radishes last week, chances are they are ready to thin. As we discussed on "Garden Talk" this morning, thinning is essential for many types of food crops. Although it is often difficult to convince beginning gardeners to do so, thinning actually increases yield, because each plant has enough room to perform at its best.

In the case of radishes, they should be thinned early, before true leaves have appeared, for the best quality roots. Leave about two inches between plants. Carrots also demand thinning, and the delicate seedlings should not be left crowded too long. Carrots planted this week will probably not appear above the surface until early April. Besides the approaching cold snap, natural germination inhibitors keep the seeds dormant until they have been wet a few times. Thin carrots to stand three or four inches apart for the largest, most uniform roots, unless you are growing a smaller variety, such as 'Little Finger.' Do this as soon as the feathery true leaves begin to appear. In the case of both radishes and carrots, it is best to snip off the excess seedlings at soil level, rather than pull them, because pulling may injure the roots of neighboring plants.

Radishes and carrots may be planted together in the same row. By the time the carrots germinate, the radishes will be almost mature. The emerging radish seedlings break the soil surface, making it easier for the weaker carrots seedlings to follow them. When you harvest the radishes, you will automatically thin some of the carrots.

For gardeners who just hate to thin, I suggest using seed tapes. They are available for many popular varieties of vegetables with small seeds or that are difficult to thin. Essentially, seeds are evenly spaced out between two thin strips of paper tape. You simply lay the tape in the row and the seeds end up at the correct spacing. This is a big time saver, but the tapes are expensive compared to loose seed.

March and early April provide perfect weather for transplanting nursery stock, and all varieties of fruit and flowering trees and shrubs are showing up in local garden centers. This year, check out the Brazel-berry varieties of blueberries and raspberries that have only recently been introduced into the market. "Brazel-berries" are dwarf varieties of raspberry and blueberry, suitable for small garden spaces or even patio containers. 'Raspberry Shortcake' offers the added benefit of being thornless. Grow it in neutral soil in full sun and harvest berries in mid-summer. The two new brazel-blueberry varieties being offered at Stanley's Greenhouse this year are 'Peach Sorbet' and 'Jelly Bean.' Like standard blueberries, these shrubs prefer acid soil, and can be included in the landscape alongside sun-loving azaleas, such as Encore(TM) types. All the brazel-berry fruits can be grown in large containers, making control of the soil pH simpler than in-ground growing. Besides the obvious benefit of fruit, all these shrubs add color and interest to the landscape. Blueberry foliage turns pink and purple in the fall, too. More information and images at

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Spring Planting Tips

Tonight the Full Worm Moon will illuminate the landscape, provided the clouds clear out to enable us to see it. Spring arrives officially this Thursday, and, coincidentally, Thursday, March 20 is one month prior to the average frost date (for my location), April 20. Rain began overnight and continues to fall, irrigating our raised beds, now bursting with green onion, leek, shallot and garlic tops from last fall’s planting.

Lettuces that were started in cells trays last week are now up and will soon have true leaves. I am growing them under the LED light I have mentioned previously. I note that the red-leaved varieties color up soon after germination, an indication they are getting plenty of photo-energy.

St. Patrick’s Day, Monday, March 17, marks the traditional time to plant Irish potatoes in East Tennessee. I also find this memory aid helpful in reminding me when to place a sweet potato root into a jar with water, so that I will have slips ready to plant around Memorial Day. Sweet potatoes require heat, so sprout them in the warmest, sunniest spot you can manage indoors. Otherwise, you will be better off to purchase slips, which will appear at better garden centers at the appropriate planting time. Two good bets for the Knoxville area are Mayo Garden Centers (several locations) and Knoxville Seed and Greenhouse Supply (Rutledge Pike).

This week is a good time to plant root crops, according to the traditional practices based on the moon. When the moon is waning, plant vegetables that bear below the ground: beets, carrots, onions, potatoes, radishes, and turnips. Note that Asian radishes are likely to perform better here if fall-planted, but salad radishes seem to do best in spring.

You still have time to transplant cabbage and broccoli, but the window is pretty much closed by the equinox. Spinach, also, will soon not have time enough to mature before the weather gets hot.
If you have not planted asparagus, you should get roots in the ground by the equinox, also. Otherwise, you may find the stock at the garden center has already begun to sprout. Not a good thing, because if you break one of those tender shoots, you rob your plants of vitality needed to establish a healthy root system. Good roots are crucial to productivity during the second season of growth. If you already have an established asparagus bed, now is the time to apply a balanced organic fertilizer, topped with an inch or so of good compost or composted manure, such as Black Kow™. Top that with an inch of mulch, such as straw, pine needles, or shredded bark. Doing so now gives the nutrients time to be decomposed by soil bacteria, making them available to the asparagus plants when they begin sprouting a few weeks hence.

Don’t forget to tune in to 94.3, WNFZ, Knoxville, for “Garden Talk,” every Saturday morning at 8:00 AM. I’ll be there to talk about vegetable gardening and other topics with Dr. Sue and Andy the Garden Guy. Our sponsors are Stanley's Greenhouse and Ellenburg's Nursery. Visit your local, independent garden center for plants, supplies and good advice!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Spring Planting Time

Spring does not begin officially for another 20 days, but March 1 marks the beginning of spring vegetable gardening season in the Tennessee Valley. Although we are far from out of the woods as far as frost is concerned, the spring temperature oscillations are not likely to bother the most cold-tolerant crops.

Chief among these is spinach, which will germinate in cold soil. Plant in succession from now through the middle of April. Thin plants to stand at least six inches apart for the largest leaves. Thinned seedlings can be transplanted and will be ready to pick a week or ten days later than the ones left undisturbed.

Arugula and corn salad can also be planted now. Arugula only takes about 3 to 4 weeks to be ready to pick, and small succession sowings should be made every few days, as often as you think you'd like to eat arugula. Corn salad grows more slowly and tolerates less heat, so you can only get in a couple of sowings before the weather gets too warm.

Now is also a great time to start lettuce seedlings in cell trays for transplanting in 2 to 4 weeks. Sow three seeds on the suface of the growing medium, water thoroughly and place under artificial light or in a south-facing window. When the seedlings have true leaves, thin to one per cell. Transplant to the garden when they 2 inches tall or larger. The secret to growing lettuce is to start a few plants every week or so, for a continuous crop. As with arugula, the amount to sow each week depends upon how much salad you plan to eat. Mature butterhead and loosehead lettuce typess will make two salads per plant, as a rule.

Broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower plants can also be transplanted during March. Be sure to keep them dusted with Bt powder to prevent damage by cabbage worms. Bt is a bacterial insecticide approved for organic gardening.

Anyone who has lived in the Tennessee Valley for very long knows we have unpredictable weather in early spring. It is wise to have some means available to protect your plants from frost, because our spring warm spells encourage buds to swell and flowers to bloom. When one night of frost returns, the show can be ruined for good. You can purchase frost blanket, which is about the same as floating row cover material. You can also use old bed sheets. One of my favorite ways to protect emerging plants is to cover them with three or four inches of loose pine needles. The fluffy needles provide frost protection and can be left in place as mulch. They are also easy to remove with a leaf rake, and they look much better than cloth covers. Pine needles work well for perennial flowers and small shrubs. Larger shrubs and flowering trees with require the artificial covers.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Happy Birthday, George!

Today is George Washington’s 282nd birthday, and my thoughts turn to cherry trees. Growing cherries for fruit is not an easy task in the Tennessee Valley region, as hot summer weather stresses the trees and leaves them susceptible to disease. Nevertheless, for the gardener willing to expend some extra effort, cherry trees will produce a delicious crop for a decade or more.
The most popular cherry variety in North America is ‘Montmorency,’ named for the region of France where this cultivar originated. Trees are available on dwarf rootstock, an important consideration for the home gardener because you will need to cover them with bird netting when the fruit begins to ripen. Otherwise, your feathered friends will get the lion’s share of the crop. Although Montmorency is self-fertile, plant two if you have the room, as cross-pollination will increase fruit set.
Sweet cherries are even less accommodating than sour varieties, but can be grown here with diligence. Care is the same as for sour cherries. Many varieties of sweet cherries exist.
Cherries need full sun and organically rich, well-drained soil. Waterlogged soil will kill them quickly. A layer of mulch around the base of the tree, extending to the drip line, is beneficial. Make sure you do not pile mulch at the crown of the tree, which encourages bark damage. Mulching the base helps to prevent bark damage from lawn mowers and string trimmers. Keeping the tree’s bark intact prevents infections.
Plant cherry trees anytime after fall dormancy and prior to spring bud swell. February is your last chance, in most years. After your cherry trees have been in the ground one full year, you should begin an annual pruning program. Prune during winter, and before the buds have broken dormancy. Aim for horizontally spreading branches with space between them. This promotes good air circulation and allows sun to penetrate into the canopy. Each year, prune out any drooping or weak branches. These won’t produce good fruit, anyway.
Brown rot is a fungus disease that is a problem for all types of cherries. Control is possible using sulfur sprays, which must be applied multiple times during the spring season. Brown rot is an important pathogen of all types of stone fruits, and numerous chemical controls are also available. Managing brown rot also means removing all unusable fruit from the trees at harvest time, rather than leaving it to drop, and scrupulously cleaning up plant debris and fallen leaves in the winter. Cherry debris should be burned, not composted, to help control the brown rot fungus.
Onion sets and cool season transplants are appearing in garden centers now. Broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower, along with onion sets, scallions, and leeks can go into the ground any time over the next month. The earliest plantings may be threatened by late cold snaps, so it is good idea to have a row cover available to toss over them, in case of severe cold. A light frost does no harm to established plants.
Sow pea seeds now for the earliest crop. Snow peas, snap peas and shelling peas all produce excellent crops in the Tennessee Valley, when planted early. Make sure to provide a sturdy trellis. Some varieties can grow over six feet tall.