Planning that Garden Years in Advance

131013 Garlic Planting

 

Sunday morning I was able to till the soil on the south side of the garage and plant my garlic. This was pretty much my entire crop from this year. It’s a hard necked variety called Music that performed very well. When all was said and done I planted 70 bulbs. Next year we should have enough to eat for the winter and spring plus the same amount to plant the following year.

Gardening is such a long term process. You always have to think years down the line and plan, plan, plan. “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray” is every farmer’s adage so we plan for the unexpected as well.

My garden has begun to expand with more permanent plantings. Raspberries and asparagus are the newest members. Blueberries, rhubarb and pears have been there awhile. I still have another year before I will be eating the asparagus but once the patch comes in it will be amazing. My raspberries have had two years of not doing so well and I am beginning to think I should move them to another spot, maybe in the back forty. They will have just as much sun but the soil won’t dry out as much. It’s worth a shot, they certainly aren’t happy where they are.

Growing your own food is both wonderful and anxiety producing. You worry about your plants. You wonder if your timing is right for planting, for harvesting.  Every year is different. I used to think that once I had 10 years under my belt I would be able to relax but that is not the case. Too warm, too cold, too wet, too dry, sheesh. I keep records from year to year – garden layout, planting time, harvest time. I review it during the winter and try to plan but you never know. So all we can do is hope for the best.

End of Year Garden Assessment

130915 (1)I took this photograph yesterday morning overlooking the best garden of weeds I have ever had.  I have had a vegetable garden for a good ten years now and this has to be the worst one yet. Fortunately the rest of the view is pretty nice.

For some reason in my mind it is the first week of October (I even tore off the September page of the calendar on Saturday and didn’t realize it until Sunday).  It may be the weeds or my confused state but I decided to dismantle most of the garden this past weekend.  I had Cherry Belle radishes the size of beets – over 5 feet tall and gone to seed (which was interesting since I had never done that).  I had a total of two beets the size of radishes.

130915 (2)I really began by pulling up all of my popcorn.  It had been raining the past week a good deal and I thought I should probably get it out of the ground.  I laid all of the stalks in my garden wagon thinking I would keep the ears on the stalks to dry further.  This was Tom Thumb popcorn, an heirloom variety developed in New Hampshire.  It was bred to do well in a short season.  It only grows 3 feet tall and is quite cute.  It did well.  Sunday I decided to pull all of the ears off of the stocks, peel back the husks and let them dry further.  They are supposed to dry to a 14% moisture content.  I’m not sure how you’re supposed to figure that out but most people just try popping a few kernels every so often during the drying period to see when they pop.  Works for me.  Did I mention that none of these ears is more than 4 inches long?  Most are in the 3 inch category – hence the name Tom Thumb. 

130915 (3)I then pulled what carrots I had.  I had planted two varieties – the old standby Danvers and Atomic Red.  Another rather disappointing harvest.  This is all I had – a total of 6 pints when it was all said and done.  When I saw them scrubbed up in the bowl I was glad I had planted both, they look great together.  I canned them with a brown sugar glaze.  I had heard a review from my sister that this was the only way to go.  Well, when you only have 6 pints you have to make a choice,  I went with sweet.

The rest of the potatoes were dug on Saturday and left out in the sun until yesterday afternoon.  Not a particularly good year for them either.  We had a lot of rain and the earth really compacted around them.  The potatoes are delicious, the yield was just not there (that and the fact that we ate fully half of them as new potatoes).

130915 (4)Then there is the matter of tomatoes.  The vines in the garden have been brown without leaves for a couple of weeks.  The yellow cherries just kept coming – we are at a loss to understand why.  This tomato is extremely prolific.  The bonus is it takes them a long, long time to rot.  Another interesting thing is they drop off of the vine as soon as they begin to turn yellow so rather than pick them off of the plant you end up picking them off of the ground.  I was pulling the stakes up that were holding the plants and these tomatoes were everywhere.  Not being one to let good food go to waste I picked them up and canned them with 4 red tomatoes that were the only ones left.  I ended the tomato season with an additional 6 pints of beautiful golden sauce.

I planted a total of seven eggplants – they produced 4 fruit.  They were delicious but I’m not sure if it was this particular year’s weather or my growing season is just too short.  The plants are blossoming like crazy right now but I know there won’t be enough time before we have a frost.  I feel a little bad pulling them up but I’m not going to weed around them.

The asparagus looks great. The bed will be cleaned out, mulched and  some edging will be put in this fall.  The rutabagas are just okay this year, they will stay in the ground until a couple of frosts hit, then I will pull them.  They are smaller than usual.  The rest of the garden will be tilled in the next week or so (because I can’t look at the crabgrass any more).

We have scoped out a new area for the garden.  This will involve outside help for excavation and some fill but it holds the promise of being a better location long term.  We have some mature maples along the south end of where the garden presently is and that is the one tree we are loathe to cut down.  I figure the way the crabgrass grew in this year it would take about a month to turn the present garden into lawn since most of the lawn is crabgrass anyway.

 

 

 

 

Can All You Can

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I posted a photo of my canyon of canned goods the other day and some comments surprised me.  I grew up canning.  My mother canned – a lot.  We had a large garden and what she didn’t can she froze.  Everything was done with a hot water bath so there were hours spent in front of that stove or in a hot kitchen, it takes a long time to process things with a hot water bath.  She used the WWII volume of the Ball Blue Book.  I still have it but these days almost everything I do is with a pressure canner.  It saves me time, water, energy and sweat.  I am also able to can pretty much anything safely.

This time of year the concentration is on fruit with tomatoes included.  Last week I canned tomatoes, peaches and made apricot butter as well as a few jars of dill pickles.  This week will be a repeat.  I really need about 50 pints of tomatoes to last me until next summer, I’d prefer to have more but tomatoes aren’t as easy to come by this summer due to a blight that seems to have effected everyone everywhere.

The peaches are beautiful this year and I had a really great canning experience this past weekend.  I love it when everything goes smoothly.  I don’t want to fight to peel those peaches.  I read somewhere to make sure the water was at a rolling boil and to dunk only a few peaches at a time for 30 seconds then into the ice bath.  Worked like a charm.  I also made sure my fruit was at room temperature before I started.  Canning fruit at home also allows you to control the amount of sugar that is used in processing.  That’s important to me, I don’t like things really sweet, I want to taste the fruit.

Our pear tree is loaded with fruit this year – I fear for its branches.  The apple trees are the same.  I will probably make a few pints of pie filling from the apples just to see if I can make it work to my satisfaction.  The pears won’t even ripen until after Thanksgiving and I will can those in chunks like I did the peaches.

There is nothing like the taste of home canned food, especially in winter.  I know exactly what is in every jar, there are no preservatives, no additives, no GMO’s.  It’s real food.  There is also the feeling of food security which is certainly what food preservation is all about.  Having enough to eat until the next harvest comes in.  Plant enough to eat now and put by enough to get you to next summer.  We live in a world where everything is immediate.  It takes very little time to empty out a grocery store, they are restocked every day.  I don’t ever want to worry about where my next meal is coming from or not having food to feed my family.  I’m sure that comes from growing up when food security may have been a concern.  I just remember this time of year the shelves were stocked and you had choices.

130824 Canning CanyonI know when I look at this my mind is set a little more at ease.  I have good food, I took the time to make it right and now all that is left is the eating.

Tomato Thief

130825 Buddy (2)

 

I have a few combination pots of herbs that have (had) cherry tomato plants in them.  I have had tomato blight this year in a big way so the tomatoes are on some very sad looking vines.

Years ago, when I had only one dog, it was a little schnauzer named Holly.  She was completely food obsessed. Each year I planted a pot of cherry tomatoes in my back yard in Enfield so I would pick one for her every time we went out.  She loved it and her first stop in the yard was that pot.  Buddy came along and she showed him the trick.  Years have gone by and I no longer have tomatoes in Enfield.

Buddy is getting on in years and we think he has a little dementia (which dogs actually do get).  This is what we saw him doing Sunday night.  He was picking the tomatoes off of the vines in the pots in the yard.  He’s hard of hearing so was unaware of me being behind him with the camera, he was totally concentrating on eating tomatoes.

130825 Buddy (1)We all had a little chuckle about this finding it interesting that so many years have passed since he actually did this.

The day was beautiful and we cooked and ate outdoors.  As we were sitting down to eat Bill looked over to the garden where Buddy was showing Chester the ropes in tomato eating in my tomato patch.  One yell and Chester made a beeline out of the place he knows he’s not supposed to be.  Buddy?  He had to have at least one more before he left.

 

Garden Economics

130824 Garlic

This is my garlic harvest for this year.  A year ago about this time I was thinking I really needed to grow some of my own but when I went onto the High Mowing Seed website with the intention of ordering some and they were sold out.  Bummer I thought – then figured I’d order it for this year. Garlic is planted in the fall, like tulips and daffodils, it needs that fall and winter time to set out its roots.  It then blossoms in June or so and is ready to harvest in July (at least here it is).  The seed companies send out their garlic for planting the first week in October.

I moved on completely forgetting about the garlic. A couple of weeks later I received a package in the mail – a pound of garlic for planting from High Mowing.  I had forgotten that I had ordered it with my spring seeds back in February.  It felt like pennies from heaven because I’d paid for it back in February as well.

The garlic I had ordered is called Music.  It’s a hardneck variety which I know seems to do pretty well around here. I dug a nice bed for them in a sunny, well-drained sight and placed each clove about 3 to 4 inches deep, covered it and walked away.  When spring arrived it was the first plant out of the ground.  In June the blossoms, called scapes, emerge.  I pick all of them off – doing this puts the plants energy in forming bulbs.  The scapes are delicious – I chop them and cook them in eggs for breakfast but they are great in all kinds of things.  Two harvests from one plant.

Towards the middle of July the stalks of the garlic begin to turn brown from the ground up.  I’ve heard that timing is everything with garlic.  You don’t want to dig it up too soon- you want those bulbs as big as you can get them.  If you wait too long the bulb will no longer be tight, the cloves will have splayed out – ready to continue growing for another year.  I had to guess.  I waited until the plants were brown half of the way up the stalk and then I dug one out to see.  It was a thing of beauty.  I dug the rest.

Curing the garlic takes another 3 to 4 weeks. The skins dry to that thin paper we are all familiar with.  I just laid the whole plant on paper in the house and waited (of course a couple of bulbs were sampled along the way).  This weekend I cleaned and trimmed the crop. What you see in the photo is what I grew.  This was a pound of garlic cloves.  The cloves are very large on this garlic so it doesn’t take many to get to a pound.  For every clove you plant you get a bulb.

This garlic is so good I vowed to plant 3 times as much next year – the problem?  It would probably cost over $60 for the seed.

Bill and I gazed at these beautiful bulbs and decided that I would use most of what I grew this year as seed for next year.  It made me a little sad to think about not eating most of what was in the basket but I could quadruple the number of bulbs next year just by planting what was in front of me.  It was sort of a no brainer, but all I want to do right now is eat garlic mashed potatoes from the garden.

Good Food

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My kids call me the doomer.  I try to tell them that I just like to be prepared.  I never want to worry about where my next meal is coming from.  In doing so I have learned to garden in good weather and bad.  This year is one of those years where some things are doing much better than expected while others are an unmitigated disaster.  Every year I seem to say to Bill, “If we had to survive on this year’s garden we would starve to death by February”.  Even though I’m getting better at my gardening and adding more and more perennial beds and plants to the ever changing array of food that I grow I know that it would never be enough for a family to survive on until the next crop comes in.

The main reason I really grow a garden is there is nothing like the taste of a warm cucumber just picked, or that summer tomato.  The real revelation came to me when I grew potatoes for the first time a couple of years ago.  Potatoes freshly dug scream “POTATO” when you eat them.  Something happens to produce the minute it is harvested – the taste begins to wane. There are only two things I grow that improve once picked – pears and long pie pumpkins.

Last weekend we made a spectacular meal of things we have grown (or in the case of the steak watched grow).  These are the meals that are memorable, the ones I like to share with friends and family.  I want them to know their food can be so much better. There is such satisfaction in knowing you started the seeds and nurtured your food.  That there are no chemicals involved in any of the food we ate.  The beef was fed grass and hay from one property, no hormones, antibiotics.  It grew up in fresh air and sunshine.  It tastes like BEEF, not the homogenized red meat you find wrapped in plastic and styrofoam at the grocery store.  There is a huge difference.

The garden surplus I will continue to can to use in the winter months.  Peaches and apricots are next on the list and I will continue with tomatoes.  Even with processing the taste of  home canned fruit of any kind is a revelation in the winter.  The first bite brings you back to summer.  That is what makes all the work of preserving your harvest in the summer worthwhile.

Garden Update

120722 EggplantThis year gardening has been a challenge.  We’ve had weeks and weeks of rain, followed by high heat and humidity.  The weeds are loving it since I simply cannot pull them when it’s 100 degrees in the shade.

I planted my beets twice this year and have two that survived.  The same thing went for the lettuce.  My carrots are spread all over the garden because Chester took a romp through it before I put up my makeshift fence.  Fortunately they are a very recognizable plant and they are growing where they landed.  The potatoes are insanely huge, but they too are growing all over the garden in odd places as well as the hilled rows.  The only squash I planted this year was the Long Pie Pumpkin.  They love my garden every year so I knew I would not have to worry too much about them.

My tomatoes may or may not have blight, I’ll have a better idea when I get up there today.  It’s too bad because they are loaded with fruit.  The most exciting thing happening is the eggplant.  I have never grown them (not sure why not) and they are doing quite well.  I like getting to know a new plant.  I thought I would see fruit before now because it seems like it blossomed some time ago.  Each plant has at least one eggplant on it now so I’m dreaming about ratatouille or moussaka.

Canning season should begin in earnest this weekend.  I used to do jams with spring fruit but have found that we don’t eat it – at least not as much as I can.  Strawberries are frozen for desserts in the winter.  Tomatoes are the big item for me to put up.  I always like to plan on 40 or more pints done various ways at the very least.  I will also be making bloody mary mix as well, hopefully we will manage to keep a couple of quarts until Christmas once again this year.  We always seem to drink it as we make it – it’s so good you can’t help yourself.

I have a few cucumbers – I’ve planted enough to eat fresh but not enough to can.  I always think they are going to yield more than they do.  If I was to grow enough to make pickles I think half the garden would have to be reserved just for them.

I will be picking yellow beans this week.  I didn’t plant as many as last year and I have to say they didn’t come up as well either.  Just as well, I canned quart after quart of them last year and it seems like that was the only vegetable we ate all winter.  I’ve had my fill.  The scarlet runner beans never ran.  They too had some issues with the leaves curling up and turning yellow.  I did notice a couple of flowers on them last weekend but they are bushy and only a foot high – quite the disappointment there, was hoping for some hummingbird action.  The new beans I planted this year, Organic Blue Cocoa Beans, I thought were bush beans but it turns out they are pole so I have rigged a trellis of sorts for them to climb.  Had I been on top of my game and actually reread the specs on this bean I might have laid out my garden in a whole different way.  Live and learn – that has to be every gardeners mantra.

After a very slow start my asparagus bed is looking awesome!  Another two years til harvest, isn’t gardening fun?

The garlic looks fantastic and I will be digging that up this weekend.  The onions not so much.  They are small and just don’t seem like they are doing much (probably too many weeds around them).

Last but not least are the rutabagas, my favorite vegetable.  They are doing great.  I should have enough to get me through the winter and share with everyone I know to convince them just how delicious they are.

I picked a few quarts of blueberries last weekend, I will be picking more today.  I like to have some in the freezer for winter muffins or pancakes.  The wild ones have a tartness that isn’t found in the large domestic ones.  There are a number of bushes all over the back forty, I cover only one of them and share the rest with the birds.

All in all the garden is more successful than I had originally thought although the yield is not what I expected.  I will be visiting farm stands for canning this year and rethink how things were planted and dream about next years garden – always thinking ahead.  I keep thinking that one of these years I will hit upon the magic formula that make everything grow to its potential.  Of course, mother nature will have other plans I’m sure.

 

Sharing My Garden

130707 Swallowtail Caterpillar (2)

 

Every year I plant something for the birds in my vegetable garden.  This year it was scarlet runner beans.  Last year, and many years before it was sunflowers.  I love the fact that they always find what has been planted and visit the same time every day to eat their fill.

This year I have unexpected guests, and they are eating my dill.  Had I known they were going to visit I would have planted more, I’m not adverse to sharing.

I originally thought this was the caterpillar for a Monarch Butterfly but after doing a little digging sister Sue pointed out it was missing the telltale black horns.  It’s a Black Swallowtail caterpillar.  Once I looked them both up I have to say that this caterpillar is much more showy. I love the symmetry in nature.  How even the stripes and yellow dots are on its body.  I am amazed at how they will metamorphose into something that looks so  completely different from what it is now.

130707 Swallowtail Caterpillar (1)The Black Swallowtail caterpillar is also known as the Parsley worm due to their affinity for everything in the parsley family.  Dill, parsley, cilantro, fennel, they love them all.  These caterpillars go through 4 molts of their exoskeleton before it builds a chrysalis.  These caterpillars are in their 4th stage.  As they grow their small yellow dots turn more into yellow ovals.  I fully expect them to be gone soon, they will be spinning a cocoon on some stronger branch.  In about two weeks they will be beautiful butterflies.

When they emerge from their cocoons they will look like this –

Black SwallowtailHow amazing is that?  We always have a lot of these butterflies around the yard.  They are beneficial pollinators so I don’t really mind sacrificing the dill for the butterflies (although all of the pickle eaters in my family might disagree).  Next year I will plan on planting more dill, parsley and cilantro in a different garden to see if they will concentrate somewhere else.  Or I will just plant a lot more so we can share.

 

 

Rain, Rain, Rain

130701 Crocs

 

This photo says it all.  I wear these crocs when I work in the garden in the summer.  They are easy to slip on, hose off.  After working yesterday I hosed them off as usual and left them on the patio to dry.  They may have dried but it started raining in the late afternoon and continued off and on through the night.  The forecast for today – rain.

I managed to get half of the garden weeded but really need to get out there again and finish before the weeds take over.

All this rain has wreaked havoc for farmers of every variety over the whole of New England this year.  It’s been one of those years where you think you have the right combo of things to plant because they have grown so well in the past only to find no matter how many times you plant the seeds the conditions won’t allow them to germinate.  I’ve planted beets twice so far this year and have had one sprout.  It’s not a matter of bad seed either.  I’ve planted two varieties, new seed.  I will plant them one more time, if they grow great, if not I wait until next year. My carrots are sparse, but the rhutabagas are fine.  The potatoes are finally going after a very slow start. They are also sprouting all over the garden – apparently I didn’t dig up everything last year.  They’ve survived tillage 3 times so I guess I will just hill them where they are.

The beans are a bit disappointing as well, they have had a tough time starting.  There will be a few more seeds planted there as well.  Although my tomatoes had a rough start they are looking pretty good at the moment.  I need to tie them up for the second time this week.  Onions and garlic are very happy.  There are blossoms on my cucumber starts but I’ve come to realize that I don’t plant enough to really put up so they will probably be eaten fresh and I will have to visit the local farmstands to make pickles. My long pie pumpkins look great, they are one of my favorite varieties and they are great keepers.

The potted flowers have never been happier.  Every summer for the past few years I’ve had to have someone water them on the days when I’m not here.  No problem this year.

One of the biggest problems that has occurred this year is with haying.  It’s has rained every day for weeks, for hay you need at least a couple of dry days (dry, not exorbitantly humid like it has been).  With the weather pattern that we’ve been in the hay has been in the field too long so the quality of the feed suffers.  I’m not sure what the answer is here.  There may be more steers going to the auction in the fall because there won’t be the hay to feed them through the winter.  We’ll have to wait and see.

Farming is such a difficult way of life.  You are dealing with the unknown on a daily basis.  Each week the weather is bad you adjust your expectations for the off season.  This is something that hasn’t changed since the dawn of agriculture but each year when it happens to me it is deeply personal.