Friday, July 23, 2010

Blackberries and Purslane - Breakfast of Champions

Annie, the garden dog and I like to head out early to beat the heat and enjoy the quiet of the morning in the garden. No time to fix a proper breakfast, we girls usually just forage. This morning Annie and I enjoyed ripe blackberries still covered in dew as we watered and pulled weeds. Annie likes to pick the low ones.

We or I should say (Annie won’t eat greens) I followed that up with purslane, a green that is often confused with a weed. Well, okay it is considered a weed in the real world but here at “The Wheel is Off the Bus” Garden (my pet name for my gardens for 2010), purslane is growing happily in the herb garden and even in pots handy to the kitchen so I don’t have to travel far to harvest some.
Purslane, Portulaca oleracea, an earth hugging succulent that has reddish thick, water filled stems and fat paddle shaped ½-2” leaves. According to “Wildman Steve Brill” Purslane was once a food crop in India. I have no idea how it got here but it grows freely in meadows, lawns and gardens. It loves hot dry weather and doesn’t skip a beat in our southern growing conditions.

You can find purslane growing from spring through fall. It blooms a yellow flower with 5 petals and one plant can have 50 thousand teeny, tiny seeds which are edible and viable for up to 30 years if undisturbed.

If identification is unclear, break open a stem, if it exudes a white milky sap it could be a poisonous spurge plant warns Brill which sometimes grows nearby. Purslane stems are filled with water. In fact, if you are weeding purslane, remove the plant from the garden as the water in the stems keeps the plant alive so it can quickly form seeds to disperse in an effort to pro-create. How cool is that?

The stems and leaves can be steamed, sautéed like spinach, eaten raw in salads, rolled in tortillas or chopped and added to soups for a thickening agent much like okra. In Russia folks dry and can this green.

Filled with Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, beta-carotene, calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron, purslane is a healthy foodstuff that may lower cholesterol and blood pressure and help with joint inflamation. The best news is it grows wild. Good to know if you are out early and need something good to eat for breakfast!

Tomato Woes

It seems that many tomatoes have been splitting this summer according to gardeners everywhere or at least those here in Middle TN. With the weather inconsistencies this year the norm has been stretched and vegetables are apparently confused. I feel like splitting myself some days to somewhere cooler, oh wait that happens every summer in the south.

Okay so why all the cracking and splitting? Really, consistent water is an issue for the vegetable garden. This gardening season has been dry periods followed by heavy rains. This is tough on tomatoes especially during the early stages. Rapid grow occurs which can cause splits. It usually doesn’t happen to the whole crop and some varieties tend to crack-up more than others.
The Vegetable garden in general needs about an inch per week to maximize production and prevent problems like splitting tomatoes. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation are better than overhead methods. However if you have only sprinklers to work with water in the mornings so the leaves have plenty of time to dry out and water for a longer period of time every 4-7 days (depending on temperatures and drying winds) rather than a little every day. The plants will appreciate the longer less frequent drinks and their roots will grow deeper into the earth making them more sustainable and stronger when the heat gets turned up or winds knock them about.

Mulch helps to keep weeds out and moisture in. Straw, hay, newspapers or leaves make great mulch for the kitchen garden.

Blossom End Rot is another common issue with tomatoes. The bottom of the fruit is brown to black with a moldy and gross look. A lack of calcium seems to be the reason and there are many thoughts as to why this happens. In my kitchen garden I usually have a few (BERs) in the beginning of the season and I think it is because I use rich compost from horse poop which causes quick acceleration in growth. Because of the high level of nitrogen the calcium needed isn’t available until more of the nitrogen breaks down. (Like I mentioned, my theory)

Another reason can be heavy rains which dilutes the calcium and other minerals available in the soil. I have read that plants exposed to extreme conditions in the greenhouse or at the nursery can add to this problem of Blossom End Rot.

To help prevent BER it is always a good idea to buy good plants or start your own. Do everything possible to have good garden soil with lots of organic matter and the proper pH. Water consistently and rotate crops every couple of years.

I have heard it helps to add egg shells to the soil at planting time to give a bit of a calcium boost or spray young plants with a calcium solution.

Blossom End Rot is not partial to tomatoes and many other veggies can have this problem. This year I had a couple of peppers, squash and even some okra with BER symptoms. For me in my garden it all disappears quickly before I have time to think or do anything about it giving me more time to focus on how in the world we are going to eat all these tomatoes!

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Evil Twins

Meet the latest addition to the coop, Cilantro and Coriander. It took these chicks a while before I named them or even decided if they could stay. A couple of times I’ve threatened to let them fly back home to Louisiana where my son got them. For a while now I’ve simply referred to these girls as the evil twins. A name they earned shortly after moving in with Cornbread and Taco.

Taco had been sitting on 7 or so eggs and I was looking forward to hatching some chicks and we (well actually Taco) was getting close to the 28 day gestation or birthday. Along came the twins and to my horror they broke and ate the eggs.

I didn’t know the latest addition were carnivores…if I had known I would have waited to introduce them into the coop (or in my case tractor); but too late for all of that.

Since that time the twin bantams (can’t remember what kind they are, if you know please tell), have settled down and stopped their egg eating escapades. They have actually become productive chicizens so I guess they can stay. I did separate them into their own living space which may have helped them shape up too.

Last week I started leaving the door open on the tractor (cage) and let Cilantro and Coriander free range if they so desired…since they are my least favorite I wouldn’t be so upset if Annie the garden dog ate one accidentally (I know forgiveness is a freeing thing and I’m really over the dirty tactics these little devils first employed). Each night I find them perching back in their coop.

I left the other pair of bantams (Cornbread and Taco) in their house as a beacon or homing device for the twins in case they got too far away and forgot where they lived.
Yesterday I left Cornbread and Taco’s door open so they could join the twins out on the range if they felt so inclined. After a couple hours of debate they decided to throw caution to the wind and start exploring the new found freedom.

Thankfully last night just past dark with help from my I-phone light I found them all high, dry and safely perched. Cornbread and Taco happily bunked in for the night with the twins in their house. That rascally rooster! I battened down the hatches and said good night…another day another chicken adventure.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Dig This, Potatoes!

Digging potatoes from the garden is fun and rewarding. My children use to be amazed at all the spuds beneath the garden soil. It’s like Christmas in the summer time they used to say with excitement as they dug and made piles of taters.

This year I planted 4 – 4’x4’ raised beds (about 10” deep) in March with four different varieties of potatoes; Kennebec, Yukon Gold, Red Pontiacs and Irish.

When the plant blooms you can rob them for a few new potatoes by carefully digging beside a plant and pulling out a few little guys or just thin out the crop by removing a whole plant here and there. As the vines turn brown and start laying down it is time to harvest.

Potatoes should be harvested on a sunny day (I prefer morning) when the soil is dry. I use a large garden fork with wide spaced tines so as not damage any spuds. Never wash potatoes until you are ready to cook them, simply brush off excess soil with your hands.

Leave the dug spuds in the garden for a couple of hours to start the curing process.

To ensure longer storage for your crop of taters, lay them out on newspapers or a plastic table cloth in a single layer where they can dry out and continue the curing process for two weeks. Here in TN, I bring the summer crop inside where it is cool and lay them out on a table out of direct sunlight in the family room and leave the ceiling fans on to circulate the air.

The fall crop I lay out on newspapers in the garage where it is cool but doesn’t freeze. Later I store them in milk crates in a cool dark pantry. Potatoes exposed to sun, either in the garden or later and turn green should not be eaten. Check the spuds regularly and remove any soft or spoiling spuds.

I weighed each variety of potatoes to calculate the pound per square foot. I was pleased with the results. Total weight was 56.9 lbs which equates to .89 lb per square foot. Not bad considering that the average potato farmer usually gets about ½ lb per square foot. The Red Pontiacs were the biggest producer at 1.44 lbs per sq. foot of garden space. That means 23 lbs. of red potatoes in a 4’x4’ raised bed (spaced 8”-10”). That was about twice the production of the other taters in the same about of space. You can bet I’ll plant those again!

If you don’t have the space in your kitchen garden to dedicate to potato growing, there are other methods that may peak your interest. ‘Towers of Taters’ (as I call them) are a space-saver using materials already on hand or re-cycled. Stacks of tires, large round tomato cages, and bottomless containers (let your imagination run wild) work well. Place potato seed (whole or pieces of sprouted or soon to sprout potatoes with at least two eyes) in layers of straw or mulch, water well in full sun and watch beautiful, clean potatoes emerge. Fellow gardener Tom Moucka shows off his 'Tater Tower' – nice job Tom!

You can also plant tater seed in bales of straw or just lay them on the ground and cover with a thick layer of mulch. My great grandmother use to plant her peels. It was during the depression and food growing was a necessity not a luxury like today. As she prepared potatoes for supper she would peel them just a little thicker and lay those peels on the ground with the eyes up and cover with soil. My father remembers her continuous crops of potatoes when he was a child.

With a little extra effort and forethought you can have home grown spuds in your garden, yard or on your patio. Potatoes are a relatively inexpensive vegetable that you can readily buy at the store for about 2 bucks per pound (for organic) but when you taste fresh potatoes that you have grown yourself – priceless!