Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Winter bed, cover crops, rabbit forage

I'm still working on a cover cropping strategy for the vegetable beds and I'll try to expand on this in future posts.   For me the number one reason to cover crop is to put nitrogen in the soil, which is done with legumes such as peas and clover.   Nitrogen is the one essential nutrient that can evaporate into the atmosphere, mostly as ammonia.  A compost bin holding plant matter and animal manure will slowly lose nitrogen while the water-soluble nutrients will remain.

Last March I planted field peas and oats in the future squash bed and covered the seeds with compost.  Once established the green shoots were harvested with shears every day for rabbit forage.  The bunnies loved it, especially the field peas, which is a high protein forage.  The roots of the peas were thick with nodules that held the nitrogen fixing bacteria, so I know that nitrogen was being added to the soil.  Once the heat killed the cover crop it left a nice mulch on the soil that also suppressed weeds. This year the squash has produced a record crop, which may be due as much to the weather as the soil.  At any rate I'd consider the cover cropping a win/win here.

Later in the summer after the cole crops were finished in their beds I planted buckwheat, again covering the seeds with compost.  I was hoping that berseem clover would be the summer legume of choice, but it never germinated or grew well enough to work.  Next summer I will plant crowder peas, a heat tolerant legume.

Cole crops were grown in these two beds.  The bed in front got the early plantings and was finished by the end of June, when I seeded buckwheat and topped the seeds with compost.  I don't have a seed drill and have found that covering the seeds with compost protects them from birds.  The buckwheat by this point went to seed and I debated whether to dig it in or pull it out.  I didn't want volunteer buckwheat everywhere so I pulled it out, very easy since buckwheat has shallow roots.

The bed in back got the later plantings of brassicas.  It was seeded with buckwheat and field peas in late August.  The field peas made it through a few weeks of very warm weather and have established themselves, while the buckwheat acted as a 'nurse' crop.  I've been harvesting the plants for over a week and feeding the cutting to the rabbits.  That bed is their salad bar.

As for the rabbits, they began eating greens at a little over three weeks old.  That takes some pressure off the doe to provide milk.  I've never had a problem with young rabbits eating greens, in spite of warnings about bloating.  I think the mother may provide them with the necessary gut bacteria in her milk.   The babies are still not big enough to eat pellets.  Here they are at 25 days with a willow branch to feed on.  They've already learned to use the water bottle.

Back to the beds - the one brassica bed was cleaned up, hoed and raked.  This will be the winter bed, where cold tolerant crops are overwintered under a plastic greenhouse.  In the past I have planted only spinach for overwintering but this year I'm going to expand the plant list.  I'm going to plant corn salad (mache) and a winter lettuce mix from Pinetree.  Also a row of bunching onions.   And garlic.  I'm not sure how garlic will respond to the relatively higher soil temperatures under the plastic but found someone on the internet who tried it and got earlier garlic.  I'm going to plant it there because that's the only spot available now.

So there's a bed ready for planting, but not quite.  September has been unseasonally warm, more like August, and the lettuce, spinach and mache won't germinate in warm soil.  (Not complaining.  The weather has been spectacular.  No bugs.  Cool nights).  That problem was solved two days ago when the area got two inches of rain, followed by a sharp cooling.  It's now more like October, and I expect to begin planting everything except garlic in a few days as the soil loses heat.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Monday September 26

There hasn't been a lot to harvest in September compared to years past.  Sometimes it seems like the vegetable garden is a bust this year, but it's really not, although losing the tomatoes to blight was certainly a disappointment.  I'm still getting a steady trickle of okra, mostly from the lone Silver Queen plant which peaks this time of year, while the Millionaire and Jambalaya F1 plants are just about finished.  Twelve pounds of okra this year, not bad.

Snap beans have also slowed to a trickle.  Maybe I'll get one more picking and that will be it for the year.   A seven foot row of pole beans has produced eighteen pounds for the year.  I would have liked more for freezing.  I still haven't found a better pole bean than Fortex.   It looks like the summer squash will produce another squash.   The plant was seeded mid-summer and took a long time to get established.  Now its huge but most of the squash die on the vine.

The top performer this year is the winter squash.  It looks like the best year ever for them.  A few weeks ago I harvested the Golden Nugget squash from the single plant that survived the borer and set them on the screens to cure.  Now cured they were taken inside and weighed.  It's the first time I've grown this squash and I'll probably grow it again.  It's very flavorful.

This harvest was nine and a half pounds. Combined with the two already consumed that's just over twelve pounds from one plant.

The remaining squash on the vine are Metro Butternut and Teksukabotu.  A rule of thumb for winter squash is they need about two months from fruit set to full maturity.  I start removing any squash that set around the third week of August.  The average first frost around here is mid-October although that can vary by several weeks.    This weekend I went through the patch to harvest any that looked ready, looking for the squash that had been on the vine longest.  How do you tell?  With butternuts the color is helpful.  Immature ones are pale while the more mature ones develop a deeper hue.  The stem is probably the best guide.  It should show some brown.

I went through and picked the squash that looked the oldest.  Also any squash on vines that had already died.  Squash bugs are just now infesting the patch, but they seem to concentrate on spent leaves.  I try to go through the patch every few days and remove those leaves.  Here's what I got on the first pass, seventeen butternuts and one Teksukabotu:

The blotches come from contact with the ground.  I turn them up to face the sun.  That's eighteen squash that probably weigh at least 40 pounds.  It's about a third of the total squash in the patch, so a total yield of at least 120 pounds of winter squash is not unreasonable, and that's from about one hundred square feet of planting.  Yes it's a very good year for winter squash.  To see what others are growing, head on over to http://www.ourhappyacres.com/

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Pallet planter and plans for next year

With the kitchen remodel dragging on into Spring I wasn't able to implement any changes to the vegetable garden this year.  Next year will be different and I'm getting a start on it now.  It starts with the perennial bed, which has six asparagus plants, everbearing strawberries and herbs.  I've realized that the bed can't produce enough asparagus or strawberries, so one of them has to go.

The Tribute strawberries provide a nice harvest in May and June, then they take a break for a few weeks and produce a trickle of berries the rest of the year.  These berries are poor quality and the birds get many of them.  Next spring they will make way for more asparagus.  I thought I'd take a shot at making a strawberry planter, and had read about converting a pallet into a planter.  And there is a pallet sitting in the pole barn. 

It's a straighforward little project.  Two layers of landscape fabric were stapled to the back side and some slats were added to keep it all sound, a piece of one-half inch screen was fastened to the bottom, some repairs were made to the front and some legs were added:

This is the back side showing the landscape fabric bolstered by thin slats of wood.  The legs are attached to stakes:

I added potting mix from a SWC that grew, unsuccessfully, anise fennel, then had to buy another bag to fill the planter.   Some space at the top was left to add water:

Then plugs were taken from the strawberry patch and planted into the mix.  The ground slopes toward the planter and forms a bowl-shaped depression in front of the planter.  I packed more potting mix at the base which contacts the mix in the planter (the bottom is screened).  When I water I add water to the top and bottom.  Seems to work so far.

The biggest concern is how will they do over the winter.  One option is to lay the planter down flat and put some straw over it.  The other option is to make a sort of insulating blanket by filling some burlap bags with straw and covering the planter with them.   In the spring I'll replace any plants that have died from the main bed, then take out the rest and put in the asparagus crowns.  If the planter does its job that's fine.  If it doesn't work out then I'm out the price of a bag of potting mix, which can likely be re-purposed.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016


Commenting on a post a few weeks ago, blogger Mark Willis suggested making harissa from the harvest of peppers.  My first reaction was 'what the heck is harissa?'   After a brief investigation it looked like harissa is the kind of thing that I like, a hot spicy pepper based paste than can be spread on a multitude of things.  So I gathered up some recipes on line and began looking through them.

The first thing one finds when looking at different preparations is the tremendous variation in the recipes.  So I found two that looked promising and compared them.  One used tomato paste, the other did not.  One used about four times the spice as the other.  You pretty much have to come up with what sounds good to you.  In my case, I don't know if I have ever tried harissa, and if I did, did not know it was.  So I did not really know what harissa is supposed to taste like. You probably just have to try different concoctions to get a sense.   But I had some notion of what a Tunisian pepper paste might taste like.

Here's how I made mine.  It starts with freshly picked ancho and Mama Mia Giallo peppers.  I made grilled pizza a few days ago, a dish that is slowly improving.  Once the pizza was finished the coals were still hot enough to slowly grill the peppers.  The ancho peppers are a modern F1 cultivar, Mosquitero.  It's a terrific variety, stout stems and large peppers, wonderful flavor.

Most recipes call for rehyrating dried ancho chiles, which you can find at the grocer.  Since these were available fresh there was no need.  The flavor of a fire-roasted ancho is sublime, sweet with notes of black currant, chili, and raisin.  The Giallo peppers are sweet and fruity.  After deskinning and removing the seeds all of the anchos and three of the Giallos were put in the blender for the base.

For the spice I used two tablespoons cumin, and one tablespoon each of coriander and caraway.  The seeds were toasted for several minutes in a dry pan, then ground to a powder.  I've found that toasting improves the flavor of cumin, taking away the sharp, green bite that raw cumin has.

The heat came from serrano peppers, which are growing in abundance in the beds.  Cutting the hot peppers open and deseeding was the most labor intensive part of the preparation.  Nitrile gloves are recommended.  It looks like about 25 serranos were used.  I like them ripe, they are hotter and more flavorful than when green.

The deseeded hot peppers were combined with half of a chopped red onion and cooked in extra virgin olive oil at medium/low heat for about eight minutes.  Four finely chopped garlic cloves were added and the mix cooked a few more minutes.

Putting it all together the roasted peppers, serrano/onion mix, spices and juice of a lemon were blended together until smooth. 

There was enough to put in three small plastic tubs.  Since all ingredients were cooked I put two of the tubs in the freezer.  How does it taste?  Quite good in my humble opinion.  It combines bright citrusy flavors with the deeper tastes of cumin and anchos, with a nice layer of heat.  Hot pepper fanatics could add a habanero to the mix to pack a bit more punch.  This morning I made an okra/cheese omelette and spread some of this on the dish.  It's much better than salsa on an egg dish. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

Late summer

I haven't posted in a few weeks and the growing season is coming to an end.   August was not a very good month for production, but September looks better.  About a month ago the tomato plants were removed after succumbing to blight.  Since then the cucumber vines, three Calypso and one Diva, have also been taken out after dying from what looks like bacterial wilt.  The last time the cucumbers got wilt, about 5 years ago, the squash followed, which worried me greatly, as this is a banner year for the squash.   So far it looks like they have not been affected, and at this point many of the squash have already matured.

The pole beans mostly stopped producing in August but have now picked up again, just not like they were.  The zucchini that replaced the first plant which got the borer took it's sweet time getting established.  It's finally sized up and has given me one large squash, with more on the way.

The four okra plants in the same bed are nearly finished, the leaves nearly gone, but they keep producing a few okra.  These hybrid okra start producing early and continuously all summer - I've picked nearly 10 pounds so far.  In another spot there is a Silver Queen okra, an heirloom.  It is just now starting to produce heavily.  I think this must be a 'deep south' okra that requires a long growing season.  In this area it is hit and miss depending on the summer.  Next year I am going to plant at least two of this type of okra.  I've found a way to freeze okra, by slicing, breading in corn meal and dry blanching in the oven and a late season okra that produces heavily would be perfect for freezing.

The tomatoes may be finished but their cousins the peppers have done well.  I picked hot peppers for salsa a few weeks ago, but had to buy the tomatoes.

Also Carmen and Jimmy Nardello sweet peppers, which were grilled and put into the salsa.

The Mama Mia Giallo peppers are nearly ready to pick.  I plan to grill and freeze them for later use.

There's a whole new batch of Jalapenos and Serranos that are ready, but don't know if I'm ready to can more salsa.  It's a lot of work.

Much of the garden is being 'put away' for the winter.  I don't do fall plantings as the tree line to the south of the garden has already begun casting long shadows on the vegetable plot.  By the end of the month many of the beds will get only a few hours of sun a day.  These two beds have been planted with cover crops.  The bed in front was seeded with buckwheat and field peas two weeks ago, and the bed in back was seeded with buckwheat in late July.

The tender greens will be cut regularly and fed to the new litter of bunnies.  The field peas had to make it through several days of unseasonally hot weather but they look good and will add nitrogen to the soil.  Since the rabbits like the young buckwheat I tasted it.  Not bad really, mild but not much flavor.

The back bed will be the greenhouse bed for the winter.  I will plant spinach, mache and bunching onions in that bed and put the plastic greenhouse over it for the winter.  I'm not sure when you plant bunching onions to overwinter,  probably soon.   The squash curing on the screen are Golden Nugget, from one plant.  I don't know if all of them are fully ripe but the plant was done.

This trellis is thick with butternuts and Teksukabotu, and there are many more on top of the soil. 

The large bed will be very productive this year.  It's already given me about 40 pounds of potatoes and 15 pounds of beans.  I expect 60 to 80 pounds of squash and some yield of sweet potatoes, unless the voles get them all.  The Silver Queen okra plant and the Teksukabotu squash seem to be having a contest for tallest plant. 

Thursday, August 11, 2016


Typically the hottest and one of the driest months of the year here in the temperate midwest and plant life is showing signs that it is past its prime.  Already I'm seeing dead leaves on the decks, there's signs of insect damage on trees and most other plants.  Much of the garden looks a little worse for the wear at this point.  That's not unusual.   I've found that many of the annual vegetable plants have a sort of recovery by September and produce more good things to eat.

That certainly won't be the case with the tomato plants.  The disease problem was discussed in an earlier post.  I'm still not sure if the tomatoes got early blight or a bacterial disease.  From what I know about blight, it infects the entire plant, foliage, stems, and fruits.  This infection appears limited to the foliage.  Of course that's enough to kill the plant, but since the leaf browning moves up the plant some tomatoes have had time to ripen up.   Eventually the foliage wasting consumes the entire plant.

It was time to take them out.  There's no point in keeping plants that will just propagate more disease.  But first I picked any tomatoes that looked like they had a chance of ripening.  Whatever is killing the plants does not seem to affect the flavor development of the tomatoes.  With the addition of some tomatoes from the market I should be able to make a batch of salsa soon.

The plants were removed to the other side of the lot where they will be burned.  Now the peppers and eggplant have the bed to themselves.  The eggplant was planted between the tomato cages and hasn't done much, only one eggplant so far.  Maybe with more light they will grow.

This is the earliest I've ever had to remove tomatoes.  Next year will require a different strategy, with smaller cages that hold one plant each, set far enough apart so the tomato plants don't touch.  Then I can trial a number of different varieties and maybe find some that are resistant.

The pole beans mostly stopped producing.  The Fortex especially are a tangle of stems near the top of the trellis.  This is also where the Japanese beetles do the most damage.

I removed a lot of the older foliage. The newer vines that originate near the base were trained up the strings.  I'm hoping that the beans get a 'second wind' and start producing again.

This bed is a jungle, with beans, winter squash and sweet potatoes vining all over each other.   The summer squash is another thing.  I usually only plant one summer squash since they produce so heavily.  The squash that was planted in the spring succumbed to the borer after giving me some nice zucchini.  That one grew like a monster until it stopped.  I planted this plant a few feet from the first one and it has been slow getting started, but is coming along now.  Why would this squash grow so slow compared to the first one?  I have no idea.

The hole in front of the plant is a mole pop-hole.  I can hoe it over but the mole will just open it up again.  When I water the bed the water runs in the hole like a drain.  I usually jam the hose into the opening and give Mr. Mole a wet welcome, not that it will stop him.

This is Joe Pye weed, a native 'weed' that can get over ten feet tall, which grows where my lawn ends.  It's flowers are an incomparable attracter of tiger swallowtail butterflies, a striking yellow butterfly with black stripes on the wings.  I've seen hundreds of these butterflies feeding at a cluster of these plants. 

The female of this species has a dark morph that is less common than the yellow version. I was lucky enough to spot this one when I was taking pictures.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Monday August 8

Despite the diseased state of the tomatoes, I actually got a harvest of sauce tomatoes.  At just over six pounds it is not much, but combined with some Big Beef slicers it was enough to make some marinara sauce.  The sauce tomatoes are Super San Marzano.

This is the first time I've canned marinara sauce. I would have made salsa but the sweet peppers - Carmen and Mama Mia Giallo - are at least a week from full ripeness.  I grill the sweet peppers then remove the seeds and skin to make a pulp that is blended in with the tomatoes for the base.  This makes a smooth rich-tasting salsa that is hard to beat.  Since the tomatoes are nearly finished I'll have to buy a batch of sauce tomatoes to make the salsa.

I got five pints of marinara sauce.  It has lots of fresh basil and oregano.  Two fresh limes were used for the acidifier.  I have no idea how it will turn out.

Just under three pounds of beans were harvested.  Production from the pole beans is tailing off.  I need to remove some of the tangled, beetle damaged foliage and let the plants establish some new foliage.  They should get a 'second wind' and start producing again.

Okra and Diva cucumbers have been producing consistently.  The okra has been steadily ramping up production.  This week I harvested 1.6 pounds of okra, which is actually quite a bit of okra, probably at least twelve pods.  I've been pickling it with hot peppers.   As the okra reaches peak production later in the month I plan to bread it, blanch it in the oven and freeze it. 

I wish I could say the same about the Calypso pickling cucumbers.  Last year they went wild, this year there is a trickle.  I've made 5 quarts of refrigerator pickles so far, but I'm waiting on enough to make a gallon batch of lacto-fermented pickles.  The vines are looking hopeful after the addition of some compost at the base.

I picked two Jimmy Nardello sweet peppers. 

These peppers make a good snack, like eating some berries, but these two topped a grilled pizza.  This is my second attempt at making pizza on the charcoal grill.  Even though this one turned out better than the first one it is still a work in progress.  It looks like I will have to try making this on a pizza stone.  Too many things can go wrong when cooking directly on the grates.  It may look a little messy but it was quite good, with lots of fresh basil and those peppers.

To see what other people are growing head on over to http://www.ourhappyacres.com/