Archives for posts with tag: deadly nightshades

Here’s what we’re up against this time of year. In the late morning, just before noon, the sun is near its zenith. Any yet, the shadows of the trees to the south of the garden are tickling the feet of the tomatoes and eggplants as they pass by.

In a few weeks, the shadows will be patting the nightshades on the head, like a visiting uncle does his nieces and nephews, looming over the children and shielding them from the light. The kids love their uncle but are a bit relieved when he moves on.

Lengthening shadows are one of the difficulties of cusp season gardening. The already short day is further reduced by obstructions to the sun’s lower inclination. Fall is upon us.

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The deadly night shades (tomatoes, bell peppers, and eggplant), the cucurbits (squash and cucumbers), and the legumes (string beans) continue to toil away in the mid-summer sun, slowly extending their stems, unfurling new leaves, presenting blossoms to eager pollinators, and fattening their fruits. Their harvest times remain weeks away.

Meanwhile, the members of three families of root vegetables—the crucifer (turnips and radishes), the goosefoot (beets), and the umbel (carrots)—bide their time until we decide to pluck them from the soil. They have matured for the most part and only slowly enlarge with each day’s dose of sunshine and water. We could harvest them all but they are safer in the ground than in the refrigerator, at least in the short-term.

In fact, in the ground is where these root vegetables like to be. Their purpose is to store energy over the winter so that the plants can flower and go to seed in their second spring. The roots will keep a long time and that is why many people store them for winter consumption. Doing so requires that they be kept dry and out of the sunlight, which, somewhat ironically, can harm them as well. Being buried in boxes of sand or soil and placed in the basement protects them until they are needed in the kitchen.

We don’t grow enough of them to feed us over the winter—hence, we do not put them in the cellar—but we do grow more than we can eat at one time or even at the rate that they mature. The icebox is one alternative but it is too cold and too humid, conditions that would foster mold or rot. Therefore, we keep the root vegetables on figurative ice.

We have to be careful, though. If kept too long in the soil, they can become woody or tough and will lose flavor. And if forgotten or neglected, they might decay or provide a feast for insects.

We won’t let that happen. When we are ready to eat them, we’ll them pull up, wash them off, and separate their greens. The roots we will roast and the greens we’ll sauté. And if we don’t eat them all, we will share them with others, which is perhaps the best approach to the abundance.

After potting up the herbs and deadly nightshades (see April 25, 2014) and before leaving on our road trip (to visit friends and their Belgian Tervuren at the ABTC National Specialty event in Huron, Ohio), I sowed seeds for two varieties of summer squash and two of cucumbers. Optimistically (hope springs eternal, my father always said), I also planted a third batch of orange bell pepper seeds. I left them all (along with the rest of the seedlings and outdoor garden) in the very capable hands of Rachel’s mother.

Well, it would seem that she has a very green thumb (thanks!). I hardly expected the seeds to germinate by the time we returned two days ago—only six days after planting. Well, they germinated all right (probably after three or four days) and the seedlings have also surged to a height of over four inches. When I went downstairs to check on them Thursday, they were pushing up on the seed tray’s clear plastic cover.

On closer inspection, I found that not everything had sprouted. There was no sign of the Orange Sun bell peppers. The third time is not a charm for these seeds which must be past their pull date (contrary to what is printed on the seed packet). It would appear that not even the greenest thumb can resurrect them.

Further (or lesser, in this case), only one zucchini and only one pickling cucumber seed have germinated, in contrast to the six crookneck squash and five slicing cucumber seeds that sprang forth. Again, there is not much we can do about older seeds except to resolve not to plant them. Next year, we’ll be buying everything fresh.

I wasted no time moving the squash and cucumber seedlings into the tallest plastic pots I have. After placing them back on a shelf of the seed-starting apparatus, I hitched up the fluorescent light fixture to its highest position. At the rate the cucurbits are growing, they will be brushing against the bulbs well before we set them out on Memorial Day weekend.

Wrapping up my assessment of last year’s plantings in preparation for this year’s (see February 6, 2014 for the previous installment), the eggplant and bell peppers are two other vegetables (three, if you count the different colors of pepper separately) which were delicious and did well in our garden but which could use more space.

I had read that bell peppers like to be close to each other—to “hold hands,” so to speak—and set them out accordingly.  I treated the eggplant, the peppers’ near relatives in the deadly nightshade family, similarly.  However, I think that my efficiency in filling the available space actually worked against me.

I planted the eggplant and bell peppers in a staggered row which allowed me to fit eight plants into only about a sixth of the planter.  The plants were certainly cozy.  It was great until the plants grew up and out, at which point the back row was almost completely shaded by the front row.  In a Catch-22 situation, the plants in the back were never able to get the sun they needed to grow above the plants in front.

We’ll grow them again this year but keep them in a single row.  There will be fewer plants and they will take up more space but they should fill out more and produce a greater number of fruit (last year, each plant only yielded two or three).  Also, I have read that eggplant is a heavy feeder and I assume that the bell peppers are, too.  Therefore, I will fertilize them more often.

What’s left?  Lettuce, for one thing.  The seeds we planted outdoors in early spring thrived.  We were lucky with the weather—not too much heat or rain—and the first seedlings quickly grew into diminutive heads of red leaf and romaine.  Contrary to expectation, they were hardy enough to transplant and remained productive well into the summer.  They did not turn bitter until the very end of their season.

We were not as lucky, however, with the second and third sowings.  Most of the seeds germinated but by the time the seedlings pushed through the soil surface, the weather was either very hot or very wet or, on some days, both.  The extremes were more than the tender seedlings could manage and they simply disintegrated.

It seems that there is a critical period during which the seedlings are quite sensitive and after which they are much sturdier.  Therefore, this year we will start the lettuce indoors.  With the enclosed seed trays, heating pads and fluorescent lights, we can better control their environment during the sensitive stage.  After they develop into heads, we will transplant them into larger pots and move them around, inside or out, based on the weather.

That only leaves the sugar snap peas and the string beans.  All of these performed phenomenally well, especially the peas which came pretty close to my ideal vision of the vegetable.  (If I am a bit hyperbolic, it is because they are some of my favorites.)  We will plant them again this year and see whether we can make them even more successful.

This season’s unsung vegetables are the bell peppers and the eggplants.  That’s probably because there has not been much to sing about.  They have been steadily but quietly passing the days in the east planter, fending off intrusions from the nearby basil and enjoying the unobstructed sun they receive from the west (at least until the basil we transplanted there gets much bigger).

But they have not produced much.  Each of the pepper plants carries one ripening fruit and of these, three attained full size a week ago.  Since then, however, they have remained steadfastly green.  Eventually (I hope), they will turn either red or orange (we didn’t note exactly where we placed each variety) signaling that they are ready to be eaten.  Until then, we wait.

The eggplants, wedged tightly between the peppers and the basil, seem to be healthy enough.  The main stems are tall—at least two feet—and their leaves are large, thick and lush.  They remind me of tobacco leaves, another member of the deadly nightshades (family Solanaceae) to which they are closely related.

They have also been producing the most delicate blossoms in an understated shade of purple.  Beautiful as they are, though, it would appear that the pollinators in our neighborhood (bees, mostly) are not impressed by the color choice or do not care for the flavor of the eggplant’s pollen.  Whatever the reason, the flowers have not been successfully pollinated and no eggplants have formed.  So:  more waiting.  Gardening is not for the impatient.

At the other end of the garden, there is more to sing about.  The string beans are nearing maturity and the beets continue to thrive.  The beets have probably been harvestable for weeks (even accounting for this year’s slow growing season) but we’ve been storing them in-situ.  I think that the roots are better off in the ground than they would be in the refrigerator:  The weather has been moderate and the automatic watering ensures that they do not become dry.

In the meantime, the greens have filled out and darkened in color, an indicator of their high concentration of nutrients.  We continue to enjoy them when we do pull a few from the soil.  And we can’t get enough roasted beet roots.  We save them for a relatively cool day when turning on the oven will not heat the house too much.  Then, we savor their deep, earthy flavor with bitter lettuces and a simple vinaigrette.  They’re good enough to make me burst out into song.

Another strong rain and wind storm swept through the area yesterday and although not seemingly as intense as the deluge a few days ago (see June 24, 2013), it dropped more than half an inch of rain on us.  It was also windier, as evidenced by the tomato and bell pepper plants that were toppled over by the strong gusts.

I’ve mentioned before that the tomato plants have kicked into high gear but I haven’t had much to say about the eggplant and bell peppers.  Up until now, they have been plugging along at a relaxed pace.  However, they too enjoy the drier, warmer conditions that we’ve been having over the last two weeks (occasional downpours notwithstanding) and are making up for lost time accordingly.  The eggplant and peppers are not yet as tall as the tomatoes but generally, all of the deadly nightshades are prospering.

To prevent further mishaps (the thunderstorm season is only just underway), I inspected each tomato plant and Velcro-ed any loose branches to their supporting cages (I snipped off one or two that seemed excessive).  For the eggplant and peppers, I installed a bamboo stake (the green-tinted, pencil-thin variety) adjacent to each stem and tied them together with more Velcro tape.

While working on the bell peppers, I noticed that when they first form, their young leaves look like crumpled wads of paper (albeit shiny, deep-green paper).  As they develop, the wads slowly expand, the leaf surfaces becoming less crinkly until finally, when they are full size, the leaves are smooth and oval.  It is as if invisible hands are opening up and smoothing out the wadded leaves just as one would an important paper thrown into the trash by mistake and later retrieved.

Presumably, at the end of the season, the leaves will dry, darken in color and return to their crumpled state at which point they will truly be ready for the metaphorical wastebasket.  Here they will remain until next spring when the cycle repeats itself.

Almost overnight, the eggplant and bell pepper seedlings went from looking too small to transplant to seeming too big to remain in the seed trays.  It has been over a month since we started them from seed (see March 24, 2013) so it is no longer too soon to pot them up.

With these deadly nightshades, we did not overplant, at least not by as much as the tomatoes.  We sowed 16 eggplants and eight each of the two types of bell peppers (okay, maybe we did plant too much).  But we also had the lowest success rate with only three of four seeds germinating.  Of the seedlings that have survived, perhaps a third have not grown to significant size.

So it was much easier to decide which seedlings to pot up and much less traumatic to throw the rejects onto the refuse pile.  We followed what has now become standard procedure by filling pots with soil/compost mix, forking the seedlings from tray to pot, lightly watering them and, finally, topping off the pots with more soil.

Halfway through the operation, we ran out of plastic pots and switched to some small terra cotta pots that we had on hand.  We purchased them several years ago to use as votive candle holders and they have never held plants.  After washing them, we had to drill drainage holes in their bottoms with a masonry bit.

We decided that while we were mobilized, we would also pot up the basil plants.  The seedlings are not really that big but their broad, almost circular, leaves are spreading and that makes it difficult to water them (the leaves cover the small soil surface of each tray compartment).

After transplanting five of the diminutive (but unmistakable) basil plants, we ran out of the small terra cotta pots.  Luckily, we had several larger terra cotta pots available (I don’t remember what we originally had planted in them or why they are now empty but I’m happy we kept them).  We filled six and were able to fit three seedlings in each.

At this point, we had transplanted more than 20 basil plants.  Only 40 to go!

We next looked to last year’s herb garden for containers.  With everything else going on in the garden, we have not planted any herbs other than the basil (more on this later, probably).  Consequently, all of the containers in the adjunct garden (on a concrete stoop outside a door we no longer use) are lying fallow.  We chose two of the more decorative pots—one octagonal, the other rectangular—and planted them with three and four (respectively) seedlings.

That still left us with half a tray of basil seedlings.  Rather than try to find more pots for them, we’ll just leave them in the tray and bring them upstairs to the dining room.  For the next few weeks, when we need some basil for a salad, sauce, or sauté, we can simply snip off an entire plant and throw it in.

And if we need an uplifting dose of aromatherapy, we can lean in close to the tray and inhale.  The scent is intoxicating.

Okay, enough talking (and reading and writing and web surfing); it’s time to get planting.  Past time, actually.

We started with the seed-starting soil mix.  We purchased a ready-made product but it is packaged dry and needs to be moistened.  We dumped half a bag into a large, wide bucket (it had been stored in the basement for quite a while so we first rinsed it with diluted bleach to kill any residual mold, etc.) and then added water from a spray bottle.  It was like making fresh pasta but in reverse:  We added water incrementally, mixing the soil after each addition, until the consistency was cohesive but not clumpy.

Next, we filled the compartments of a seed tray.  Rather than stuffing soil into each cell one at a time, we scooped handfuls of soil onto the top of the tray and then spread it back and forth until all cells were filled (molded chocolates are sometimes made this way).  Then, we compacted the cells by poking our fingers into them (this we had to do one at a time).  We repeated the process until all of the cells were full and moderately compacted (we did not overdo it).

The first seeds up were the tomatoes.  We have six varieties and each tray has 72 cells.  That means 12 cells—one long row—per variety.  Most of what we have read recommends two seeds per cell to protect against failed germination but that would be a lot of seeds and we have space for only two plants of each type.  Planting that many seeds seemed like overkill so we placed only one seed per cell.  If some do not come up or are sickly, we can discard them.  Alternatively (and let’s keep this positive), If we end up with more healthy plants than we can use, we will give them away.

We carefully labeled each row with a plastic row marker and then took the tray outside to water it.  Using a spray bottle (with a fine mist and gentle pressure), we applied water until it started to drain out the bottom.  When we were sure that all of the soil was moist, we placed the clear cover over the tray and moved it to the shelving unit.  The cover should retain most of the moisture for several days or even weeks.  We do not plan to water the seeds again until sprouts have emerged.

We repeated the process with the eggplant and peppers.  We planted 16 eggplant seeds (each in its own compartment) and eight each of the red and orange bell peppers (this tray will have a lot of empty cells but we did not want to put in anything with a greatly different germination period).

Finally, we filled a tray with basil seeds.  If we are lucky, we will have 72 basil plants, at least a dozen of which we can plant in the garden (this worked very well last year).  The rest we will give away.  Basil can easily be grown on a windowsill or sunny kitchen counter.  Besides providing a ready supply of fragrant leaves, it looks pretty.

It remains to be seen whether the spot we chose by the window provides enough warmth for germination.  We think that with a daily dose of direct (but diffused) sunlight, the temperature in the room will rise to at least 70 degrees (as it does in the dining room upstairs) but if the seedlings haven’t sprouted by a day or two after their expected date, we will consider other options.  We are hoping to get some help from Mother Nature here.

In preparation for planting, I sorted our seeds (for a list, see February 8, 2013 and February 8, 2013, part 2) according to sowing method and incubation period.  We’ve been guided this year by the Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook by Ron Kujawski and Jennifer Kujawski.  As the title implies, the book’s advice is arranged chronologically, relative to the date of last frost, which makes it very practical and easy to use.

Our seeds fall into three basic categories:  those that will be sown indoors before the last frost, to be transplanted when the weather is sufficiently warm; those that can be planted outdoors while it is still cold (i.e., before the last frost); and those that are best planted outdoors after any significant threat of frost has passed.

Some of the plants in the last category could be sown indoors (prior to the end of cold weather) but not all of them can be easily transplanted.  For instance, transplanting individual lettuce seedlings would be a tedious business and the chances of the seedlings’ survival would be diminished.  For some of these plants (again, the lettuces), we may elect to plant them indoors in large pots and then simply move the pots outdoors when the weather warms.

For the plants started indoors, some may need to be potted up before transplanting (e.g., the tomatoes) while others may not (e.g., the squashes and cucumbers).  All will want to be hardened off before migrating outdoors permanently.

Following the book’s lead, I tabulated our seeds into a Seed Sowing Calendar.  The only vegetables not listed there are the string beans.  They will be planted in the same spot occupied by the Sugar Snap Peas, after they run their course.  Last year, this was in early June.  We did not plant until July that year but will try to turn the crop over more quickly this year.

I’ve chosen May 5 as the date of last frost and that puts us today at six weeks before.  That also puts us three weeks behind on sowing seeds for eggplant and bell peppers and a week behind for peas.  I’m not worried about the peas—they wouldn’t be doing much outside in the cold anyway—and I’m not really worried about the eggplant or peppers, either.  They are late season vegetables so a late start should not make much of a difference.

On the positive side, the time is right to plant tomatoes and basil indoors and there are several other vegetables—carrots, turnips, beets and radishes—that can be sown outside at any time now.  The lingering cold and its effect on us (not the plants) is the only thing holding back our enthusiasm.

It’s not as complicated as it might look or sound but sometimes I ask myself, what have we got ourselves into?

This evening, I picked the first of the French Filet string beans.  This is the bush variety (as opposed to the Blue Lakes, which are pole beans) and I had to search through the closely spaced leaves to find the ripe ones.  We didn’t do anything with them except to wash them and cut them into bite size pieces.  Raw, they were a nice addition to a salad along with lettuce (our mesclun patch is still producing) and two of the few remaining tomatoes.

Our first string bean harvest allows a nice segue into more recapping of the current season.  The string beans, and the Sugar Snap peas before them, did very well in our garden and we will plant them again next year.  But I think we need to devote more space to them (at least one full-length row) so that there are enough ripe legumes at any time to make a sizeable meal.  This year, we either ate the beans a few at a time or waited until there were enough, taking the risk that some would be overripe.

Of course, if we allow more space for peas and beans we will also have to give up room for other things.  I can’t think of anything we planted this year that I would not grow next year; therefore, we may have to expand the garden.  We probably don’t have enough space to add another full-size planter but we could grow some vegetables in pots or directly in the ground.

Of this year’s vegetables, zucchini would be the most suitable candidate for in-ground growing.  Zucchini plants can be very large—our single vine ended up using as much space as two did earlier in the season—and they tend to sprawl.  Before we pulled it out, our zucchini took up almost half of its planter.  “Don’t Fence Me In” would be the zucchinis’ theme song and it is easy to see why they are often grown in free-form patches.

As for pots, the eggplant and bell pepper plants might do well in stand-alone containers.  Unlike the zucchini, they do not spread out very much.  In fact, the eggplant in particular grew upward as much, if not more, than it did outward.  Neither the eggplant nor the bell pepper grew very large (which may be a characteristic of their respective varieties or due to poor soil conditions) and their smaller size would make them easier to move around as the solar exposure changes.