Monday, December 5, 2016

World Soil Day - and a reminder to cover your soil

Today is World Soil Day as declared by the United Nations General Assembly. So I hope you've spent some time thinking about how vital good soil is to our gardens, our agriculture, and our planet. Soil rocks! Also, soil... humuses. Um.

Today a bunch of us MGs went over to the Derwood Demo Garden and helped take care of our soil by putting a mulch of shredded leaves on any areas of bare soil.

MG Joslyn Read covers the soil with leaves

We usually do this earlier in the season, but we had to wait for a delivery of leaves - and since we did wait, some winter weeds had germinated in the compost topping the beds. So we had to do a little weeding too. Avoiding weeds is one reason to cover your soil - not just during winter, but all the time - and others include preventing erosion and runoff, keeping soil temperature even, protecting roots from freeze damage and frost heave, keeping moisture in the soil, and adding organic matter (assuming your soil-covering material is organic).

You can cover the soil with mulches like leaves or straw:

or with cover crops like this crimson clover in our 100-square-foot garden:

It's too late this year to plant cover crops, but consider this as an alternative for next year. We'll be doing a lot more of it at Derwood.

Thank your soil today - and remember to keep it covered!

Friday, December 2, 2016

Pesto tarte soleil: how to look impressive with little effort

If you want a dish for holiday gatherings that will make you look like a fantastic pastry chef but involves minimal time and skill, take a (basil) leaf from my book and make tarte soleil! This is a sun-shaped puff pastry creation that ends up looking like this:

This is one I made for a GIEI state meeting this summer, with basil and roasted tomatillo pesto. Plain basil pesto (which you may have some of in your freezer, if like me you escaped the dreaded downy mildew until very late this year) works great too, as does any paste of a spreadable consistency - you don't want it to drip. I haven't made a dessert version yet, but Nutella seems like a good idea. :)

The recipe with photos and full instructions is at Smitten Kitchen. I made the tapenade version with the feta dip first - it's also great.

Make sure that you thoroughly thaw the puff pastry ahead of time, in the fridge, but also keep it cold while working. It will puff up better if it goes into the oven still chilled.

Really, it is simple to make - just rolling, spreading, cutting and twisting. And I am betraying this great reputation I have for making a super-complicated dish by telling you so.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Planting Hardneck Garlic for NEXT Year

Hardneck garlic bulbs

Since I first learned about hardneck garlic from Colchester CSA manager and grower, Theresa Mycek, probably ten years ago, and started planting it in my own garden, I’ve come to depend on it. Hardneck garlic is terrific because it’s delicious, beautiful (those tall green tops with the curlicue scapes are such a nice visual counterpoint to the clumpy greens and beans), and like a culinary Double-mint gum: it’s two, two, two garlics in one.

The first one is the scape.
Garlic heads separated into cloves

Wait; let me back up a little. First, sometime in late-October through November, you sit outside on a nice autumn day, separate garlic bulbs into cloves and plant the cloves about 8 inches apart – I plant in a grid, others do it in rows  – in a prepared bed. Tuck them in gently beneath straw or some other light but effective mulch. In spring when the earth wakes up, the green shoots start coming through the mulch. In about May, you notice that the shoots have grown rather tall – knee high at least. In maybe mid-June, when the tall stiff shoots have continued to grow and are now curled around themselves a bit (i.e. turned into true scapes), you clip or break them off – it’s kinda like asparagus; you snap them where they are happy to be snapped – bring them in and cook them any one of a number of ways. We sometimes tempura them, or grill them for a great snack/ hors d’oeuvre/side dish, chop them into omelets, sauté them with other veggies, quick-pickle them in the fridge in a vinegar-and-herb-and-peppercorn bath or hang them by the kitchen door to ward off vampires. Whatever.

Starting t form scapes in May
In July-ish, when the green tops have browned and died back sufficiently, you dig – or pull, depending on how soft the bed is – the now cloved-up bulbs, wipe off the earth, and hang them up to dry.  (I clump them in bunches of about 6-8 bulbs and hang them on the back porch). Then you use them.  They go into the spaghetti sauce I can during tomato-and-pepper harvest, into chicken cacciatore (which is ONLY truly delicious when made in season with fresh garlic, fresh basil and fresh parsley plucked only a few minutes before chopping into the red-wine-soaked braising liquid), into the oven to spread on homemade bread with good olive oil, into salad dressings, well, you get the idea.  But if you’ve planned right and the fates have shined on you and your little bed of hardneck garlic, you will also have enough to save, separate into cloves and plant to continue the whole cycle. The miracle of gardening and life perpetuating itself.

This year, I prepped one bed, but the second bed I wanted to plant was a knotted thicket of wiregrass, wild aster, which has determined root systems, and the bind weed just to put a topping on it all. My husband volunteered to dig it all for me, bless him, so this afternoon I’m going to sit outside with the dog, separate six more garlic bulbs into cloves and plant that bed.
Clipped scopes ready to oil and grill
When I’m in prayer position on my knees stuffing the cloves – or seeds or anything else for that matter – into the ground, I think about a little garden plaque a friend gave me years ago that said: Who plants a seed beneath the sod and waits to see believes in God. It’s an acknowledgement that while we can become really good gardeners, we are all at the mercy of so many other elements in life beyond our own control. But I have faith. And I keep on planting.  

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Looking back at the 2016 growing season

Well, no one's posted here in a long time! Didya miss us? Maybe not, if you ended the summer growing season as frustrated and tired as I did: the last thing you may have wanted was more talk about vegetable gardening!

But now we've all taken a breather and are enjoying the cool weather of fall, so much as I personally would like to forget a lot of 2016's gardening issues, it's worth taking a look back while it's still fresh. Here, in brief, are some of the things I'll be mulling over and discussing with fellow gardeners over the winter.

1) Improving timing of tomato planting. We had a rainy and unusually cool May, which delayed all summer planting till the last week of the month. This did seem to delay the onset of common fungal diseases, at least as compared to recent years when the plants have been in the ground during periods of frequent rain. Eventually the diseases caught up, however. Next year I'm interested in the idea of staggering plantings, and waiting to put some tomato plants in the ground until well into June. In previous years when some plants have gone in very late (usually because they were donated to the demo garden at that time) they've been nearly disease-free until very late in the season.

2) Using shade cloth with tomatoes. May make a big difference in those hot summer months.

3) Using cover crops not only in empty beds but in between growing plants. This is not a new idea, but one we've never managed to get around to trying at Derwood before. I'm encouraged to try it after a few observations, including the high production of a nearby garden that ended up full of weeds - not great, of course, to have all those weeds spreading their seeds around, but the effect of keeping the ground covered by more than just mulch may have been significant and beneficial. I also noticed the effect on the peppers in my community garden plot of growing sweet potatoes as a ground cover underneath, helping to keep the soil moist even through the hot dry weather of late summer. I had a spectacular pepper year! (Unfortunately the sweet potatoes did not do as well, and there are other reasons including harvest timing that I won't do that again. But the cover crop effect did work out, somewhat inadvertently.)

4) Getting after those pest insects. We had a couple years' break from squash bugs, squash vine borers, and even harlequin bugs, following some severe winters that killed insect populations. But they are back full force now, and we lost plants as a result. We need to be more vigilant in protection. I'll try to discuss those methods as we use them next year.

5) Dealing with rodents! We had a very bad season at Derwood with invading mice, voles, and chipmunks. I'm hoping to get some blog reports from the team who maintained our straw bale and African keyhole gardens, which bore the brunt of those invasions, and also discuss what we'll do differently with sweet potatoes, which were devoured again.

6) Getting those fall vegetables to grow despite heat and drought in late summer. My story is that I have "given myself permission" not to have much of a fall garden this year, though to tell the truth I put in lots of plants and they just died. The fall greens are doing fine at Derwood, but we have a drip irrigation system there and that's just not a possibility for my community garden. And I was busy, so the plants didn't get watered enough, and also suffered from insects despite the row covers, so most of them are now gone. I do have a nice crop of spinach coming along, though.

That's only part of the winter contemplation list, but it's enough for one post! Hope to make more update posts soon - and hope that all of you are recovering from Garden 2016 (or maybe you had a terrific year and it's only me...).

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Baltimore County MG Year of the Tomato Update

Guest post by Angie Goodman, describing yet another wonderful tomato tasting!

Baltimore County Master Gardeners
2016 Year of the Tomato

Let me set the stage for you: It is 8:59 am on the morning of the 2015 Baltimore County Master Gardener Plant Sale.  We have 3 members behind the Tomato tables in the back of the “Sun Barn”.  All is calm. 

The clock clicks over to 9am and the barn doors open.  People come rushing in, pulling Plant Chariots (wagons) and carrying boxes.  One of our Tomato sellers described it as a stampede coming toward them; they were sure they would be crushed.  The next few hours could only be compared to a crazy day on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.  I even lost my reading glasses early that day (not good since I was a “cashier”).  They were later found smashed into the dirt floor, an apparent victim of the stampede.

The tomatoes sold out early, and it was determined that there were not nearly enough.  Out of this realization was born the Tom Team, led by Baltimore County Master Gardener Lisa Airey; a team dedicated to improving the variety, quality, and number of tomatoes at the next plant sale and tomato tasting.  Over the next several months, we met, and we planned, and we asked Master Gardeners if they would grow for us.

Our expectation was that we would have approximately 800 plants for the sale, many of them heirlooms.  But our incredible group of Master Gardeners went above and beyond our wildest dreams.  We started the sale with over 2,000 tomato plants as we opened the doors at 9am for the sale! (Red tablecloths designate the tomato tables)

At 1:00, as things slowed down, we did a quick inventory and determined that we sold over 1,200 tomato plants in the first 4 hours.  We moved an amazing 300 plants per hour!!  At the end of the day we had a lot of plants left over, but many were distributed to Master Gardeners in the hopes that they would donate some of their fruit to our Tomato Tasting in August.

As we moved through the summer, the weather seemed to get more and more unsettled.  Cold, hot, wet, hot, wet, stormy and windy, hail, hot, wet.  The call went out to the Master Gardeners for donations for the August Tomato Tasting, as part of our annual Gardenfest event.  As one of the organizers of this event, I always worry that we will have only a few varieties on the tables, a concern supported this year by the many emails that I receive from Master Gardeners telling me how horrible their tomatoes are doing.  That doesn’t really matter though.  What matters is that people care enough to make an attempt.  In general, we never know what we will get, until the morning of the tasting.
Again, Master Gardeners came through with flying colors.  The day of our Gardenfest event, we had 50 varieties of tomatoes.  Some people donated several varieties, others just one or two tomatoes.  All were very much appreciated.  As many of the volunteers had helped with the tasting in prior years, they jumped in and self-organized, having the tasting set up and ready to go by 9am.

One gentleman informed us that he didn’t like tomatoes.  But, after tasting several of the varieties, a Master Gardener was helping him gather some of the seeds together from the tomato he liked the best, explaining to him how to save them for planting next year.  One little girl was tasting many varieties, while her mother shared with us that her daughter won’t eat tomatoes at home.  We suggested that possibly she wasn’t serving the kind (or colors) of tomatoes that her daughter liked.   It is always fun to chat with tasters as they taste varieties of tomatoes that might never taste otherwise.
As part of the tasting, we asked tasters to complete a short survey, mostly to vote for their favorite tomato.  87 surveys were collected.  9 of our tasters had never tasted an heirloom tomato prior to that day. 

Here some of the top rankings:

1st place: Sungold F1 – 19 votes
2nd place: Black Cherry – 13 votes
3rd place (tie): Black Krim -- 9 votes
3rd place (tie): Hungarian Heart – 9 votes

Cherry Tomatoes:
1st place: Sungold F1 – 19 votes
2nd place: Black Cherry – 13 votes
3rd place: Indigo Rose – 3 votes

Paste/Plum Tomatoes:
1st place (tie): Purple Russian – 3 votes
1st place (tie): Striped Roma – 3 votes
2nd place (tie): Juliet F1  – 2 votes
2nd place (tie): Royal Chica Roma – 2 votes

Slicer/Salad/Beefsteak Tomatoes:
1st place (tie): Black Krim – 9 votes
1st place (tie): Hungarian Heart – 9 votes
2nd place: Pineapple – 7 votes

Heirloom/Open Pollinated:
1st place: Black Cherry – 13 votes
2nd place (tie): Black Krim – 9 votes
2nd place (tie): Hungarian Heart – 9 votes

1st place: Sungold F1 – 19 votes 
2nd place: Red Beefsteak (variety unknown) – 5 votes
3rd place: Earliana – 4 votes

--Angie Goodman (Baltimore County Master Gardener)