Thursday, June 30, 2016

BER Begone!

Some of the Super San Marzano tomatoes have blossom end rot, or BER.  It's not nearly as bad as last year, when nearly all of the initial set of tomatoes was lost.  Last year the month of June was extremely wet and cloudy, perfect conditions for BER.  It's hard to say why this happens, because the weather has been mostly sunny and the bedrock in these parts is limestone.  Maybe this variety of tomato is just more prone to BER.  The Big Beef slicing tomatoes have none.

That looks like a lot but the tomatoes are small, probably about an ounce, so the plants have not invested a lot of energy into them.   They will never get larger because the growing tip is gone, and ultimately they will rot on the vine.  It may be that the plants have 'got it out of their system.'  I'm not seeing any more signs on the newly set tomatoes, and the very first tomatoes did not get any BER, in fact they are looking very nice.  This variety can get quite large for a sauce tomato, around 6 ounces.  Many of them will go into salsa.

I noticed that a jalapeno plant has already produced some peppers.  A few went into an omelette this morning.

The Kentucky Blue pole beans are showing some infection from????  Newly set leaves turn wilty, then brown and die. The Fortex beans are not having this problem, they look very healthy.   Years ago I tried growing Kentucky Blue and thought they were a delicious bean.  That year the Japanese beetles got most of the plants, so I thought I'd give them another go.

Then there's the mystery squash.  This is supposed to be Burpee's 'Italian ribbed zucchini' which is just their name for a Cocozelle summer squash, which I grow every year and ran out of seeds so these were bought at the hardware store.  But this squash - if you look close you can see it - is clearly not ribbed, it is glossy smooth and very dark green.  At least the plant is very healthy but I may never know what this is.

Again this year the apple trees have cedar apple rust.  They got it very bad last year and by summer's end many of the leaves were lost.  This spring I sprayed them twice with Mancozeb, a fungicide.  I chose Mancozeb because it decomposes quickly.  It doesn't look as bad as last year.  The Golden Delicious gets it worse than the Fuji.

This is the first year the apple trees have set a 'crop' of apples.  I'm a little surprised at how much the apples bend down the branches of the tree.  

The two gigantic dill plants continue to mature.  I've pruned them judiciously to let more light get through to the okra on their north.  They should make enough dill seed to last a few years.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Monday June 27

The great weather continues.   I planned to water the garden this morning but last night storms moved through and dropped about an inch of rain.  Today it's sunny, although a little hot, about 90 F.   There is little rain in the forecast for the next ten days, with lots of sunshine and cooler temperatures, perfect summer weather really, and I expect I'll be setting up the water pump to the pond and giving everything a good soaking in a few days.

There's more diversity to the harvest now.  Okra is trickling in from the Millionaire and Jambalaya plants.  The Jambalaya is quite a bit smaller and should be the right size for pickles.  I'll have to learn to judge the size when it is ready for harvest.
 I also picked two small beets that were crowded in the row, and some broccoli.  Broccoli has been small this year, this head was only 4 ounces.

I also picked a few Tropea onions for cooking.

And the first slicing cucumber, Diva.  Nothing like a fresh cucumber, and the Diva's, a Beit Alpha cucumber are delicious.  This one came in at just under a pound.  I planted one Diva and three Calypso pickling cucumbers.  I've been removing the small cucumbers that start on the Calypso plants until the plants establish enough vegetative structure to produce well.   It looks like the plants are large enough that removing the fruits is no longer necessary, so I expect to have pickling cukes in a few weeks.

Not shown are another broccoli head and a kohlrabi, about three and a half pounds total.  To see what other people are growing head over to http://www.ourhappyacres.com/    

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Thursday June 23

Well the great weather continues, great for hot weather plants, that is.  For people the afternoons can be a little stifling.  A week ago the area got a good soaking, then yesterday another day long rain.  Last weekend I set up the pump and watered the garden and flower beds from the pond, which takes about an hour.   The rain yesterday saved me the trouble.  The days between the rains have been nearly cloudless and hot, that's why I needed to water three days after a rain.

The rabbit brood of eight bunnies is about nine weeks old.  The doe was bred on March 17, she kindled on April 17.  I removed the doe from the grow-out pen last week when the bunnies were about eight weeks old and put her back into her hutch.  Now the little ones have it all to themselves. I'll process them mid-July at about twelve weeks.

The doe probably stopped nursing the bunnies several weeks ago.  At 8 weeks she seemed to be getting somewhat irritated by their commotion.  Wild rabbits would probably be on their own at this point.  Another reason to get the mother out of the grow-out pen is the feed issue.  The little ones are given all the food they can eat, which is a lot as they are growing fast.  Once the mother stops nursing, her feed should be rationed or she will get overweight, which can lead to problems with her pregnancy.   With the little ones getting fed free choice she will eat all she can when she is in their pen, so out she came.  She's a big girl, probably at least twelve pounds. 

I was doing some 'back of the envelope' estimates of how much food the bunnies provide.  She will be bred again after this litter is processed, and if she has another eight kits that is sixteen this year.  Her only litter last year was ten kits, so it could likely be more.  That's sixteen kits that will clean out to a bit less than four pounds apiece, let's say about sixty pounds total.  Not bad for a high quality meat, 23% protein and low in fat. 

From each rabbit there are about four generous servings of 'prime cuts' - the legs and back tenderloins.  The back with ribs and the belly meat can be boiled for stock.  Rabbit stock is excellent.  The meat removed after making stock makes another generous serving of pulled meat.  It makes a delicious barbecue.  That works out to five meat servings per rabbit, plus some stock for other things, probably about a pint per rabbit.  Then there's the liver, which I like.  For their size the liver of a rabbit is large, and two livers make a generous serving.  That works out to eighty meat servings and eight servings of liver for the year.  Not bad.  I'm estimating that the total price of feed is about $150.  I could save a little money by getting another doe, that way the buck would be doing double duty, but unless I can find some people to sell to that is a lot of rabbit meat.  Mostly though it is nice to know that I have a supply of high quality meat that I raise myself.   

In other garden doings - the first brassica bed was weeded then seeded with berseem clover and buckwheat as a cover crop.  I haven't had much success with berseem clover thus far.  Maybe mixing it with buckwheat will help it along.  I want the clover in the mix as it will fix nitrogen.  After seeding I spread a layer of compost over the seeds.  I expect the rest of the cole crops will be out in a few weeks, although I will leave the broccoli in to see if any more heads develop.

I took the string trimmer and laid waste to the oats in the squash bed.  Next year, no oats, just field peas.  The winter squash are starting to get somewhere, and the Fortex beans have made it to the top of the trellis, while the Kentucky Blue plants are working their way up the strings. 

Lastly, I seeded another summer squash as a backup, in case the present squash gets the borer.  I figure there is about a one in two chance of borer destruction.  I only grow one summer squash at a time, that is more than enough squash, and frankly for a green vegetable I like beans and okra better, although they are all good mixed together.   Until next time. . .


Saturday, June 18, 2016

It's looking like a good year

I think June is probably the most important month for a vegetable garden.  This is the month when the hot weather annuals have to establish a vegetative presence in order to be productive the rest of the summer.  Last year the month of June was a disaster in these parts.  It was rainy and cloudy most of the month.   Growth of hot weather plants slowed to a crawl, and tomatoes developed diseases that took them all by late summer.

So far this summer is vastly different.  There has been plentiful sun with rain showing up when needed.  Wednesday it rained most of the day, a good soaking rain, and since then the sky has been nearly cloudless.  Needless to say, these conditions promote strong growth.  The tomatoes are now about five feet high, nearing the top of the cages.  Every morning I check for shoots that have grown outside the cages.  Any that I find are pushed back inside the cage. 

The lower branches are getting some blight, but nothing like last year.  There aren't many varieties that are blight resistant, but in a normal year a healthy plant should be able to outgrow the blight.  Last year they couldn't do it.  After this picture was taken I cut off the infected branches.   Removing them allows for better movement of air through the plants,  very important near the base since the peppers will block much of the air flow.

This bed contains only root vegetables.  I guess an onion is a root vegetable.  It's growing Ruby Ring onions,  Mokum and Nantes carrots, beets, Red Tropea onions and parsnip.  All of these crops are tedious to start but worth it in my opinion.   Thursday I weeded the entire bed, a real PITA but made easier with the recent rain.  That's the last weeding the bed gets.  The parsnip will soon be large enough to shade out new weeds.  Purslane seems to be really bad this year.  It's supposed to be edible but I find it tasteless and the rabbits won't eat it either.

I picked some okra yesterday.  It seems a bit early for okra, but never look a gift horse. . .   I've debated whether to get the huge dill near the okra out of the way but have left it.  By the end of the month I should be able to harvest most of the seed heads and get a lot of dill seed, then I'll cut them down.  The okra went into an omelette.

The winter squash is showing itself over the cover crop of field peas and oats.  Next year I plan to leave the oats out and just plant the field peas.  The rabbits liked the oats when young and tender but now they won't eat them, and the oats have a suppressing effect on other plants while peas don't.   Both oats and peas are now showing the effects of hot weather and this plot will change appearance quickly.  The potatoes in the background are looking especially vigorous this year, now chest high.  Wire has been strung in two directions to keep the plants upright.

Pole beans are starting their climb up the strings.

It won't be long until the first slicing cucumbers, summer squash and bush beans are ready.  Summer's here!

Friday, June 10, 2016

A brief walk around the garden

I have to admit that more could have been done in the vegetable garden this spring.  There was a kitchen remodel that seemed to have no end in sight and I let things go.   Compared to other years about half as many cole crops were planted, but when one is wondering just when it will be possible to clean and cook food, the motivation is just not there to start a lot of seedlings. 

With the summer crops growing well it looks like things will be back to normal before long and the slow start will look like a minor hiccup.   A number of improvements have been made recently and I wanted to show them. 

I added a top course to the terrace that was built last year.  I like terraces.  On sloped ground they improve the esthetics of the place.   They also make walking more agreeable.   And they just look good, civilized even.

Once the grass is established this area will be ideal for self-watering containers, or maybe some kind of strawberry planter.  The curved end actually goes into shade in the afternoon, ideal for lettuce.

Cucumbers appear to be growing well.  So far I've been removing any female blossoms.  The vines are just not large enough to grow fruit yet, and they will produce more in the long run. 

This bed and the one just in front of it have been the least productive beds.  There is a large branch on a nearby ash tree that shades the beds until early afternoon.  They are also the first beds to be shaded in the evening.  Actually that should be past tense, because yesterday I rigged up a pole with an electric chain saw on the end and cut off the branch from the roof of the house.

This is a big deal.  Now the beds start to get sun in the late morning, probably two to three more hours per day.  Last year I grew tomatoes in these beds and they got diseased badly.  I think the extra sunlight in the morning will make a huge difference here.

Speaking of tomatoes they were suckered this morning. I removed the suckers (these are indeterminate plants) at the base of the plants.  These suckers are thin and will not be strong enough to support tomatoes.  Removing them also allows for better movement of air near the soil.  Usually the first really strong sucker appears about two feet high.  For these Big Beef tomatoes which are planted two per cage it's actually hard to tell the sucker from the main stem, they are about equal thickness.

And the plants look much better with the low whippy growth removed.

I've never seen dill this size.  This bed grew overwintered spinach and was covered with a plastic greenhouse over the winter.  Apparently this warmed the soil and gave these volunteer dill an early start.  They are nearly six feet high.  I'll harvest the seeds then cut them down to make way for the okra.

There was a wasp in the flowerheads.  I don't know what it was doing there.


Monday, May 30, 2016

OK this is more like it

I'm calling this the first real harvest of the season, because there was some variety to it.  The first cole crop was picked, a Kolibri kohlrabi:

And Tribute strawberries.  This picking was nearly a pound:

The overwintered spinach was a real disappointment this year, with the leaves turning brown.  Good thing I planted a row of spinach this spring.  Most years the spring-planted spinach fails to produce.  This year I planted a new variety, Reflect, a semi-savoyed type.  It is supposed to be an early maturing spinach.  I picked a two heads this weekend, along with more strawberries,

Last night I picked a small head of Snow Crown cauliflower, and more berries.

There are three spinach plants left.  It's amazing that they haven't shown any signs of bolting yet.  Since today was quite warm I think I'll pick them tonight.  And there's a head of broccoli that is just about ready to pick. . .

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

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Char-Broil Kettleman Tru-Infrared Charcoal Grill

I bought new charcoal grill a few weeks ago, the old one had rusted out to the point of uselessness.   When I was at Menards, a Midwestern lumber retailer, I noticed this Char-Broil grill on display and was intrigued by the design, and what they meant by ‘Tru-Infrared.’  After doing some research on The Google and watching some videos of the grill in action I decided to buy it.  Today I fired it up to break it in.  Later that evening  fired it up again and cooked some country-style pork ribs.

Charbroil came out with this grill in 2015.  The first thing you should know about this grill is that, other than it’s kettle shape,  it is not like a Weber, which is considered the benchmark of kettle grills.  It is engineered to work in a different way.  First there is no control of the combustion air.  Air enters through ports in the side of the kettle and is deflected downward by the sides of the charcoal tray,  baffling the intake air and mitigating the effects of wind gusts.  Charbroil copied this system from a European grill maker, Dancook, after it bought the company.  You control the temperature by starting with a known amount of charcoal, placement of the charcoal, using zones, and adjusting the vents on top of the grill.  Even if the vents are fully closed the grill is designed to vent some smoke out the back of the grill.  The hinged top makes a sort of visor in the back that covers an opening so the smoke can escape.  It looks rainproof and makes me think of Darth Vader.

Charbroil claims that flare-ups are uncommon with this grill.  The reason is the design of the cooking grate, a series of pressed metal V’s coated with porcelain enamel.  This is probably the most expensive component of the grill.  Little of the cooking area has direct exposure to the fire and the limited direct exposure to the flame reduces convection, which can carry away moisture.  Before this grill came on the market Charbroil was using this same grate on their gas grills, which are also called ‘Tru-Infrared.’    After watching videos of the Charbroil grill cooking hamburgers in a side-by-side comparison with a Weber grill it sure looked like this design reduces flare-ups. 

The grill is supposed to use less charcoal because of its design.  The cooking surface is three inches from the charcoal tray.   The owners manual claims that it is not necessary for the charcoal to touch while burning, it can be spread around with spaces between the briquettes.  Even spread apart the charcoal is supposed to burn completely.   This picture shows the charcoal tray.  The ring above it is actually part of the tray.  Behind the ring and not visible are the combustion air ports.   The ash trap is at the bottom.

Assembling the grill, I was impressed by the overall fit, finish and thoughtful design.  My sense was that the engineers at Char-Broil really worked out the details of the design.   The assembled components make a sturdy product that gives the impression that it will last.  The paint work looks very high quality, smooth and uniform.  A real bonus is the hinged lid.  I don’t like taking off a large kettle lid and looking for a place to put it.  Hinged lids are awesome.   Well thought out, well executed, the only question was would it cook? 

Before attempting to grill meats I first took the grill on a trial run.  Well, a non-cooking run since I made use of the heat to season a cast iron skillet.  Since this is a more serious grill than the old one I also bought  a charcoal chimney to get a uniform start on the coals.  Sixty briquettes were counted into the chimney and a fire started with the help of a splash of charcoal lighter fluid. 

After about 20 minutes the charcoal was released onto the grate.  The cooking grate was set over the hot coals and the lid was closed, with the vents on top shut.  After ten to fifteen minutes the temperature inside the kettle reached 450 F.  The manual advises that the temperature at the cooking surface is likely about 100 degrees higher than the thermometer reading.  They also claim that this arrangement of charcoal will bring the temperature, according to the thermometer, up to 500 F.  It was a very windy day which probably kept the grill from reaching a higher temperature.

For hot grilling of steaks and burgers Char-Broil recommends 50 briquettes (the chimney can be used to measure the charcoal by noting the level of different counts of briquettes).   I used a few more because of the skillet being seasoned.

I went into town, and when I got back a few hours later the inside of the grill looked like this.  The charcoal was completely consumed leaving only ash.  Nice.  After emptying the ash pan it was time for the real test – actual cooking.

The meat of choice was country-style pork ribs.  This cut most likely goes by several names depending on your location.  I don’t know if they are technically ribs.  The cut is from the shoulder area.  It’s one of those cuts that is best cooked on a grill.  The pieces were marinated overnight in Stubb’s pork marinade.  Country-style ribs require a slow cook, about 45 minutes.  

Cooking ribs on the old grill was always problematic.  The fire was always a little too hot and I had to move the pieces around a lot.   Char-Broil’s guidance for cooking whole chicken was to ignite 60 briquettes then push them out to the edge of the tray to make a ring, then put the meat in the center, not over the coals.  This method looked like the best strategy for cooking the ribs.   The necessary charcoal was ignited in the chimney starter.   Once the coals were nearly ashed over they were released onto the grate and pushed out to the edge of the grill to make a ring.  After setting up the charcoal in “the ring of fire” I added some apple wood chips to the coals for flavor.

The cooking grate was first brushed with some oil then set in in place, then the lid and vents were closed.  After awhile, and with a little fiddling of the air outlets the temperature was stabilized at 325 F.  Once the temperature was stable I put the ribs on the center of the grate and shut the lid.

The ribs were flipped at 25 minutes then cooked for another 20 minutes.  By that time the temperature was beginning to fall off a bit.  You can get some temperature control by moving the meat from the center out toward the edge closer to the charcoal.  One piece that was thinner than the others was kept in the center so it would cook a little slower, so it doesn't have the nice char marks of the other pieces.  How did they turn out?  Fantastic.  The meat was completely cooked even near the bone, moist, with a wonderful applewood flavor.  Effort was minimal.  All I had to do was flip the meat midway throught the cook and rearrange the pieces a little.  


I’m very happy with the performance of this grill.  Compared to a traditional kettle grill it may require a little more initial effort  to develop and record charcoal strategies that are best for the food you are cooking, but once mastered the rewards seem to be well worth it.  Next I will attempt to grill rabbit, which will require a bit longer cook time and will be more challenging.  After that I want to try grilled pizza.   I’ll keep you posted on the results.