Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The apples are in!

Well, so much for not hurrying the apples along. The rains really started coming down and when I went down the next morning, one of them had a crack in the skin.

I figured it was from how much water the trees must be soaking up after our three-month dry spell, when the apples really don't want grow any bigger. I thought, if one more gets a crack, I'll bring them all in. That night we got 2.4" of rain, and while it was coming down at 2:30 in the morning, I decided I'd bring them all in as soon as I could get outside in the morning. So I did. There was a bucketful!

There were so many I put them all out on the counter after I washed them so I could count them.

Twenty-one in this batch, plus the five in the fridge and the four I'd already dried—makes thirty! Way more than I thought were on the tree! Wow! Hooray for Liberty apples!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

It's apple time!

There's not much left in the garden to harvest besides the potatoes I'm still bringing up every week, but the apples are coming on in the orchard! I went out this morning with a bucket and got 5 that came off in my hand as I touched them. There are still nearly a dozen that say, "No, no!" when I pull on them, and I don't want to hurry them! I've already dried 4 that came down or I knocked off in the last two weeks, and though they're really tart, they're certainly flavorful. I've read you can let them sit in cold storage for up to a month and they'll gradually grow sweeter without losing their crispness, so I may just hold these in the fridge till they're all down. I've always wondered how I'll know when they're ripe, but it's completely obvious once the abscission layer has formed in the stem—the slightest touch dislodges them. It's not a question of pulling on them—it's as if nothing is holding them there. I have to pick with both hands to keep them from falling. I honestly don't know why they didn't come down in the breezes we've had.

And they're so pretty! The flesh is crisp, flawless, and white. I can't wait to taste a fully ripe one! The sunscald spots are just thickened, dried areas, on the very surface, and easy to cut out.

I also dried my three asian pears, which have been sitting in the fridge for several weeks, waiting for me to have enough to dry. The two I pulled off early have a little sweetness, but the last one, probably the only one that actually got ripe, has an amazing nectar-like flavor that really surprised me. Now I can't wait till next year, and I hope I'll get a lot more. Yum!

This is my third year of drying fruit that I've bought, but the first time I've ever dried fruit I've grown. I have to say, there's something really deeply satisfying about slicing up a beautiful—and even the not so perfectly beautiful—piece of fruit that I've known since it was a flower bud. I recommend it highly. It seems more personal than the potatoes, which form underground, and you don't know what you're getting till you dig them up. Being able to see them go from buds to flowers, to itty bitty fruits, then get bigger, change color, and then finally—finally!—come off the tree into your eager hands.

Speaking of apples, I've decided to move the young Gala that I planted up in the back yard 3 years ago to where it will get more sun. It has barely bloomed, let alone fruited, where it is, so I moved an ornamental grass to make room for it on the near side of the barn. There isn't any more room in the orchard, so this will be the best I can do for it, but it will definitely get more light, and lots more direct sun. I also bought it a buddy, whom I've already planted. It turns out that Gala and Honeycrisp are good cross-pollinators, and I found a lovely young Honeycrisp on sale this fall, so I'm hoping they'll hit it off and make lots of pretty little apples once they get established. Neither one is as disease-resistant as the Liberty, but they are two of my favorite eating apples, so why not give them a try?

My pineapple sage came through as promised with these scarlet red flowers. It was one of the plants I was struggling to keep watered during the seemingly endless drying winds we had before the rain finally came, because the flower stalks were just forming then and I didn't want to lose them. Next year I plan to get a half-dozen more of these for other places in the garden, and pinch them back a bit so I'll get more flowers. They're a great shot of color for so late in the season.

I still haven't moved my rhubarb plants out of the garden. I've been sidelined for two weeks with a pulled shoulder and I'm still not quite ready to get out and dig holes. I hope I can get them out before the ground gets too cold, but if I have to wait till next spring—oh, well.

I still have several weeks' worth of potatoes waiting to come out, and have a few comments. I was really underwhelmed by the Russian Bananas. They taste fine—mild—but I really didn't get many. Maybe fingerings in general need more richness in the soil? If I didn't such nice clumps from the blues, I'd take it personally. It probably is something I'm doing wrong, but I don't know what. So far I haven't been impressed by any of the fingerlings I've planted. The blues and the red skins, including the Cherry Reds I planted this year, give me  a nice haul of big fat taters, and both blues this year have such outstanding flavor compared to the others, I may just stick to them. I am really impressed with Purple Majesty. I can't say I like them any less than the All Blues, and that's saying a lot. I don't think I could tell them apart except for the white layer under the skin on the All Blues.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Oh, Purple Majesty!

I don't want anyone to think that All Blue isn't my favorite potato, but coming in a close second is Purple Majesty, the one I bought this winter when I wasn't sure I would be able to get any All Blue sets this year. The other day I dug up my second Purple Majesty plant, and got these beauties:
Basketful of Purple Majesty
My soil sifter works great for collecting them, and for hosing the dirt off them, too. They looked so cute, each one a different size, like The Potato Family, I cleaned them up for an official portrait:

Lucky thirteen
They're very like All Blue in yummy flavor and texture; the only way I can tell them apart is the white layer of flesh just under the skin on the All Blues.

My artichokes were something of a disappointment. First, once the buds got over a couple inches I had to go down every day and hose the aphids off them, and I still ended up with several ants nestled in the one I cooked. At one point I gave up and started using an organic soap to try to keep them off, but when I found out I had to apply that every day, too, I went back to just plain water. Then I noticed how angular and thin the buds were compared to the photos of really round Green Globes. I eventually found a post that explained that a consistent percentage of Green Globe seedlings make this shape artichoke—it must be a recessive form that no one's bothered to clean out of the strain. Since you can't tell until they do make buds, which plants have this trait, it probably isn't worth the trouble to try to do that. When I read that, I gave up on them entirely for this year, and maybe forever. I did find another blog that talked about the ant problem and said that in the second and subsequent years, in an organic garden, predators for the aphids at that particular time will be abundant enough to control them. In any case, I really dislike having aphids and ants in the food on my plate, so I'm not sure whether I'll try again. So I've just been enjoying the flowers I'm getting now:

The bees love artichoke flowers

Remember the giant purple broccoli that took 3 seasons to flower? Well, look what its two little sprouts did this year:

Son of a broccoli
I think it got big enough this year to give me flowers again next spring! I think I'll give it a good dose of chicken poop over the winter, and maybe I'll get more than teeny ones. It also got severely attacked by aphids at the same late-summer time that its parent did, and I'm hosing them off. No ants on the broccoli. Maybe if I could cross a broccoli with an artichoke...hmmm...that flavor could be pretty horrible. Never mind.

I'm impatiently waiting for the fruit in my orchard to get ripe. The three asian pears on my Shinseiki have turned yellow, but so far refuse to let go of their branches. One has a blemish, but the other two are perfectly round and larger than I expected. I don't think they're going to get much yellower, but I do hope they let me pull them off the branches at some point. Unlike European pears, they don't ripen any further once they come off the tree, so I don't want to jump the gun.

After the first hot spell we had I found bruise-like places on almost half of the Liberty apples, just as big as their red-pigmented areas. Web research pointed to sunscald as the problem, due to tissue damage in dark-pigmented areas at a time when the concentration of ascorbic acid is relatively low in the fruit. Ascorbic acid levels are high in early summer, but decline in late summer until they rise again when the fruit starts getting ripe. I was hoping a bit of shade might prevent any further damage so I clipped a piece of row cover fabric so it protected the apples from direct sunlight.

Shade tent
I don't expect these apples to ripen until late october. After I read about sunscald, I remembered how many dozens of times I bit into a store-bought red delicious apple only to find a big brown mushy spot that I thought was a bruise.

I also hung a fruit fly trap in the tree after I saw a couple fruit flies hanging around it in late July. I'm happy to say that it only caught a few flies. I don't know if they're a real problem in apples, but I'm no fan of fly larvae in my food, either.

 I'm really happy with how all the orchard trees came through the dryness and heat this summer. While last year I had to water once or twice a week to keep most of them from wilting, I've only watered them three or four times all year. They're still pretty well mulched with horse poop and the hay from last year, and I bet that helped.

Summer yellows

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A great year for veggies

The veggie patch, right center
It not only looks like summer in the garden—it tastes like it, too. I've really neglected this blog this year, but at least I haven't neglected my veggie patch. It's really been producing for me this year. I've been getting snap peas for supper two or three times a week for the last month, I've almost finished off the broccolis—except for the bits the slugs got first—and even got a couple of little beets! I even harvested several servings of potatoes, both from this year's All Blues and from a couple of volunteers I missed harvesting last year.

The hay is working better than ever, one light initial weeding is all I've had to do. And I'm happy to say that when I pull it back to sneak some taters, I see ground beetles and earthworms and little millipedes, all hard at work. I definitely still have slug issues, and probably wouldn't have gotten any broccoli, kale or parsley at all, if I wasn't regularly sprinkling Sluggo around. I am watering earlier than I did last year, but not too much because there's still a lot of moisture in the soil. But the potatoes I've pulled up have been beautiful and shiny with no sign of scabbing. They're also a bit bigger than last year, even this early, because all the new sets got planted in the really good soil.

My garlic is bigger this year, but still not full-sized by any means. I'm going to pull it up on time though, let it dry out, and replant the cloves in October, as I'm supposed to. Maybe I'll get full-sized plants next year.

I harvested an artichoke this afternoon! It's only 3" long but it was starting to look like it might be opening, so I jumped the gun and took it. It had many ants on it, which I hope I knocked off, and I wonder if I picked either really early in the morning or late in the evening, if they wouldn't have gone home? I remember from my very first garden, which was full of ant colonies, that they always seemed to disappear in the evening. Hmmmm. Next time. I probably don't get up early enough in the morning to beat them these days, though. I'm retired—they're not.

I love the companion flowers I planted, and the air is always full of zippy little buzzers visiting them, and (I hope) eating bad bugs. I probably shouldn't say this out loud, but I haven't seen an aphid yet this year. Don't tell anybody.

Yellow calendulas and flowering bolted kale
My Bergarten sage surprised me with some really pretty, light blue, typical sage-type flowers. It's growing so well in this corner that when I found several on sale at the local Bi-Mart, I bought 4 more of them to put some other places where I need robust, sun-proof ground cover. It's lovely, classy-looking, and tastes great.
Bergarten sage in bloom
 I finally got around to planting some zucchini seed, the soil and the air temps should be warm enough now for them to do well. And just in case we do have a long warm summer, I put out a hill of cantaloupe seed and one of honeydew. They're not up yet, but I'm keeping an eye on them. I'm so happy with the veggie garden this year, it's unbelievably great to go down and pick supper. And besides the veggies I've gotten strawberries, raspberries, and my two dozen pie cherries. I'll try to get more pictures up here now that I'm almost done planting for the season.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Veggie Garden 2.0

If you wait long enough, maybe everything will happen—for instance, my 2 and a half year old broccoli finally headed out this spring! Near the end of March I used a tripod of bamboo poles to lift the stalks up off the ground so it wouldn't be quite so easy for the slugs to get the new growth.

A couple weeks later the flowers were ripe and ready to eat, so I cut most of the little heads off. I got one nice big serving off the two stalks, and it was great! I haven't eaten anything but frozen broccoli for so long that I was surprised how much flavor this had. There is a nice big clump of sprouts from the bottom of one of the stalks that I'm going to thin out and let grow. I suspect they started because the stalks had lain horizontal on the ground from the first big windstorm last fall until I picked them up off the ground this spring. Maybe this is just a really long-lived broccoli.

I left a few bits to flower because they were really too small to bother with, and the companion plant book says they'll attract good bugs. They're almost ready to bloom now. I let the rhubarb flower for the same reason, plus I wanted to see what it looked like.

By that time, the garlic and onions that got left in the ground last year because their tops disappeared had sprouted again, so I pulled up the garlic, divided each one into single cloves, and replanted them. I hope they'll get a little bigger this year; the biggest one I had was only 6 cloves. And I hope I can manage to harvest most of them this year! With a little luck, I'll get them replanted in October this year, when they're supposed to be planted.

I planted several different companion flowers in with the veggies this year—calendulas, gaillardias, alyssum, and cosmos. Even if they don't attract enough good bugs to make a difference, I really like having them just because they make my garden look better—and I love flowers. I just put them in a few weeks ago, so they haven't done much yet, but they are growing.

I made two other changes to the garden as a whole. I stapled up some 3-mil plastic along the fenceline to do three things: To stop me from watering the weeds in the pasture next to the garden; to keep the weeds from leaning into my garden and dropping seed; and to create a small, possibly slightly warmer microclimate. It will also partially block the really hot dry chinooks we get in the summer. The second change is my new permanent paths. The previous owners left me a pile of short cedar fence pieces and strips of plywood that I had never gotten around to getting rid of, and they make somewhat satisfactory pathways. This was another recommendation in the companion plant book, to reduce soil compaction from walking and to reduce the amount of mulch you need.

The peas, broccoli and kale that went in first are doing great! After the weather really started to warm up I thinned them, although I see from this picture that I didn't get all the extra broccolis. I hate thinning—it seems like I'm wasting plants—but some of the sprouts were so close in the packs that I couldn't divide them as I was planting.

The peas are growing great guns now, and the biggest of the little brocs are almost a foot tall.

The kale is bushier than it is tall, but it's looking really good. I've had to keep putting out snail bait, and I almost lost one of the little plants. Those are calendulas in front of them.

I really wanted to grow parsley this year because I love cooking with it and it seems so silly to buy it when you can grow it. I think I'm really getting into growing herbs. I'm not that much of a cook. Period. But so far they're easy to grow, and it's really nice to have fresh spices when you do want them. Parsley is so good with potatoes or on garlic bread. So when it warmed up a bit I put a 6-pak in next to the garlic, except for one I put in a patio pot in case the slugs got the garden ones. It's taking them a little while to settle in, but now that we're getting some warm weather I think they're getting happier.

I did make one purchasing error this year when I was buying spices. I grabbed a tarragon that looked lovely but when I got it home I found out it had no aroma at all, and I couldn't understand why not until I came across Russian tarragon on the web yesterday. It's a different species that is described as having little or no flavor (!) but growers sell it because it makes viable seed and is easier to propogate than French tarragon which can only be propogated asexually. So now I have to try and find the good stuff and keep it alive through the winter. Nominally I'm in zone 8b, but the strong winds, heavy rains and heavy clay combine to make some parts of my garden the equivalent of zone 6.

I turned out to have more potatoes this year than I planned on. I was only going to plant All Blues this year, because they were soooooo good last year. But as it got closer to  planting time, none of the stores were getting them in, so in desperation I bought some Purple Majesty, then Cherry Reds and Russian Banana fingerlings. After I had bought all of these, a farm supply ten miles away advertised on CraigsList that they had All Blues. I drove over there on a particularly cold, wet day, and they did have them, nice big fat sets, in fact bigger than any of my blues got last year. I couldn't help buying 5 sets, so at that point I had enough potatoes to fill up half the fenced area, twice as many as I had intended to grow. I resolved to start eating them sooner this year, so I won't have so many at the end of the season. I presprouted them again this year, and planted them the first week in April, the same as last year. I wasn't going down to the garden much during the two or three weeks of almost continuous rain we had, and when it finally stopped and I looked again, they had all popped up and were growing like crazy.

I have gotten one big surprise as the soil has warmed up the last few weeks—I missed harvesting at least a dozen potatoes! I've had potato sprouts all over where I planted them last year—and some of them were good-sized! And I thought I was so thorough.... I pulled all of them up except for some of the Rose Finn Apple fingerlings, which are where some of my herbs are growing this year. I didn't want them to mess up my rotation scheme, and honestly, I think I'll have enough potatoes. But this harvest, I'm going to have to be a lot better at digging them!

I haven't put any new hay down yet—there was still enough stuff down to keep weeds from sprouting, and I wanted to give the sun a chance to warm the soil as much as possible. I think it will be going down soon, though, just to keep the soil from drying out.

I think the biggest improvement for this year is that when it was time to plant, I had everything ready and the weather cooperated fully, so things got planted on time this year. So even though last year was a limited success, it was a great learning experience and I'm seeing the benefit of that now. Hope I can keep the momentum going.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Re-starting the garden

It's warm, then it's cold, then the sun comes out, then it starts to hail, then the wind comes up, then it rains, then it rains some more, then it rains another two inches...and there you have it—Spring! Time to re-start the garden!

Some of the first plants at Fred Meyer last month were their six-packs of veggies, and it was soon enough after payday that I decided to jump-start the garden and get something growing. I came home with kales, broccolies, and snow peas. I've never bought any plants this early before, and I was happy to find that none of them were root-bound—they were all at the perfect stage to plant out. I went out and scraped the oak leaves back enough to plant the babies, and got them in the ground. What was left of the hay was really matted down and far from the fluffy golden stuff I had last summer, but it was still covering most of the ground, and an inch or two thick where it still lay. However, there were enough bare spots that I was glad I had gotten the bags of oak leaves for additional cover. The leaves look practically new and I'm thinking they'll be lasting a while. But maybe they'll start rotting when the soil warms up and the micro-organisms get more active.

A row plus two of baby broccolis
Peas and their pea-rsonal trellis
Little kales
I dug some chicken manure into their beds, and had to use the big pick to break the hardpan where I put the kale. I had found some used willow trellises last summer on CraigsList and they hadn't found a place in the garden yet, so I decided to try them for the peas. I cable-tied them to the fence and stuck in an extra fence post to help hold them, and so far they seem pretty sturdy.

The next day there was seven inches of snow on the ground. I waddled down to the veggie garden in my wellies and took some pictures.

Most of the snow landed on the broccoli, close to the back fence.
The fruit trees all decorated.
A few days later, after the snow had melted, I went down to see if anything got snow-smushed, but everybody was fine. The kales had turned purple but were still alive. One kale did get slug-nibbled, so I put out slug bait. Snow and slugs. Sheesh.

So, I have a new garden! I also have a refrigerator drawer full of pre-sprouted potatoes, and they'll be going in during the next dry spell. I do have seeds to plant, too. I wanted to try kolrabi and bulb fennel again. But if I don't have any better luck with those this year, at least I'll have my cold-hardy things to eat. I have managed to clean out all the weeds left from last year, so it feels like a fresh, new garden.

It feels so good to be able to get out and work in it again, even if it is just one day a week.