Archives for posts with tag: plant differences

[Obviously, I’m a bit behind on my garden blogging this year. Okay, much more so than usual. If I have any readers left, however, they will be relieved to know that I am not behind on my garden planting; there is plenty going on there. Over the next few weeks, I’ll try to catch up. Please note, though, that many of the posts will contain very little text, if any.]

Well, so much for 2014.

It was a long one, trying in many ways, but in the end a good year. That was true for life in general and for the garden in specific.

What worked and what didn’t? Let’s start with the negatives.

Growing herbs from seed: It’s a wonderful concept and something that promises the heat of summer in the dead of winter. I started thyme, rosemary, basil, oregano, spearmint, and sage at the end of January last year with high hopes. The only seeds to germinate were the rosemary (perhaps two) and the basil.

I sowed a second batch of thyme, oregano, spearmint, and sage in early March, this time with fresh seeds. The germination rate was much better but the growth of the seedlings was slow. They did not need potting up until the end of April and we didn’t set them out until late June (everything was late last year due to the harsh winter). My conclusion is that herbs are best purchased as seedlings.

Eggplant and peppers: These are not exactly negatives—we had a decent harvest—but they needed extensive feedings (weekly) and did not produce ripe fruit until the early fall. It is possible that I planted them too close to each other (again!) and this year, we will give them even more space. I’m determined to make them work because their flavor is so much better than what you can get at the market, even the farmers’ market.

Photo by Rachel

Radishes and carrots: It pains me that neither the radishes nor the carrots performed well last year—or the two prior years, for that matter. Radishes in particular are supposed to be one of the easiest vegetables to grow. They are also supposed to be quick to mature. In our experience, they are quick to sprout but then their growth slows to a crawl. Carrots are slow in all respects.

With most of the root vegetables, we have also had the problem of too many greens and not enough roots. It’s not a huge problem—I enjoy radish, beet, and turnip greens as much as I enjoy radishes, beets, and turnips—which is a good thing because there does not seem to be anything to be done about it. We will continue to try different varieties to see what works best in our garden.

Cucumbers and summer squash: Like radishes, summer squash is supposed to be easy. It is also supposed to be prolific. Not for us. We had enough but leaving sacks of zucchini and cucumbers on the neighbors’ doorsteps was never an option. This is another case where finding the right variety—a trial and error approach—is really the only solution.

Photo by Rachel

And now, the positives.

Lettuce from seed, indoors: Sure, the germination rate of lettuce seeds is abysmally low but there’s no reason not to sow a hundred seeds at a time. If too many sprout, they can be culled and used as micro-greens (in salads arranged with tweezers!). More likely, only just enough will grow to fill out the planter.

We use window boxes that fit nicely on the bottom shelf of our seed-starting apparatus. We keep one fluorescent light fixture on them continuously (controlled by a timer) and so I only need to remember to water them every other day or so to maintain a steady harvest. If I can figure out a safe way to automatically irrigate the boxes (without fear of flooding the basement!), then the process will be perfect.

Photo by Rachel

Sugar Snap peas: Peas with edible pods are tied with turnips as my favorite home garden vegetable. They are the first to start outdoors (theoretically, as early as March 17) and quickly add a touch of spring green to the garden. The sprouts are useful whether raw, as a topping for crostini, say, or cooked in a stir-fry. The blossoms are beautiful and once the vines start producing, they continue for weeks.

Turnips and beets: Turnips are my co-favorite home garden vegetable both because they are easy to grow and are versatile. Unlike the other root vegetables, we’ve never had a problem with too many greens, which are delicious raw (in a salad, usually) or sautéed (e.g., with onions and garlic). Likewise, the roots can be eaten raw—thinly sliced, with bitter greens and a honey-based dressing—or cooked. I don’t know why more chefs haven’t included them in their farm-to-table menus.

Beets are slightly more problematic and sometimes the roots suffer due to over-abundant greens growth. On the other hand, they are very resilient and last until early fall. (And for all I know, they could over-winter in the ground without damage.) Despite the additional effort needed to spur their root growth, home-grown beets are worth it. Nothing beats the earthy flavor of beets, pulled from the ground and roasted in a hot oven. That’s terroir defined.

Tomatoes: As in previous years, we planted twelve vines last year but only six in a raised bed. The other six we planted in the ground, in alternation with the summer squashes. Also unlike ever before, we only placed one tomato vine per cage. More experienced gardeners might be saying, “Duh!”, but we’ve finally arrived at the conclusion that the tomatoes are easier to manage (by which I mean, easier to keep pruned) when they have more space between them.

Photo by Rachel

We also benefited from an unusual late-season growth spurt last year; our vines were still producing fruit in mid-November. It was odd, but in a delightful sort of way. Having fresh tomatoes in the fall—which were still green, for the most part—made us think about them in a different way. Whereas the soft, ripe, red tomatoes of summer were best eaten raw, the firmer, tart, green fall tomatoes tasted better in cooked dishes.

String beans: Pole and bush beans are another vegetable on the too-short list of reliable producers. Their preferred schedule (mid-summer to early fall) makes them the perfect candidate to follow the Sugar Snap peas when they start to peter out. Like the peas, beans sprout quickly, climb their trellis rapidly (one can almost see them creeping upwards), and supply an abundant crop of crisp, brightly-flavored beans that last for an extended period. They are a good choice to end the growing season.

A funny thing happened to our tomato plants as the growing season started to wind down for the year. They went berserk!

Usually, production of new fruit diminishes at this time of year. Fewer flowers blossom and once the weather gets colder, the pollinators stop visiting them. The fruit that remains ripens only slowly, if at all (often, it doesn’t).

But this year, the number of blossoms has actually increased as we have moved later into the fall. And, apparently, the bees haven’t packed it in yet. Most of the blossoms have been pollinated and many fruits have set.

This is particularly true of the Black Cherry tomatoes. All of the remaining branches are supporting multiple clusters of dozens of tomatoes. Most of them are green but each cluster includes a handful that are starting to turn red.

With no signs of frost in the short-term forecast, it looks like we’ll be eating tomatoes at Thanksgiving!

Perhaps everyone is dying to know which color seed produced which color pattypan squash. Well, perhaps not. But I know I am.

As some may recall, we started the pattypans rather late in the season with a packet of seeds we picked up at Adams Fairacre Farms (see May 9, 2014). The variety was labeled “Tricolor” and to be helpful, the producer dyed a third of the seeds red and another third green. Whether the dye choices are some kind of homage to the Italian flag was not immediately apparent.

Presumably, the tricolored seeds are to tell the tricolored squash apart. Unfortunately, the seed producer did not provide a key. Almost entirely arbitrarily, I mapped buff (undyed) seeds to white pattypan squash, the green seeds to green squash (how’s that for going out on a limb?), and, by process of elimination, the red seeds to yellow fruit.

The last pairing was the least obvious choice because red is not a color usually associated with summer squash. Also, one could argue that the buff-colored seeds are a variation on yellow and, hence, should produce yellow fruit. However, I did say my choices were mostly arbitrary.

Thinking ahead, I labeled each pot in which I sowed a pattypan seed with the seed color which it contained (see May 26, 2014) and then, when setting the seedlings out, drew a sketch to keep track of where each seedling was planted (see June 8, 2014, part 2). I wanted no ambiguity.

So, now that the squash vines are starting to bear fruit, I have my answers. And—(drum roll)—it turns out my carefully formulated hypotheses (by which I mean my guesses) were correct.

Well, two out of three, anyway. A red seed did, in fact, produce a plant bearing yellow pattypan squash and a green seed did actually produce a plant bearing green ones (we ended up with only one vine of each color). Sadly, though, the plant that sprang from a buff-colored seed is not looking well and will not likely survive.

It’s probably safe to assume (if that is not an oxymoron) that the third plant, grown from the buff seed, would have produced a white pattypan squash (and too bad that we didn’t get any; white squash would look cool). But confirmation will have to wait until next year.

While the other vegetables, rugged rough-and-tumble types that they are, enjoy the great outdoors, the lettuces are homebodies and prefer to be inside the house.

Lots of direct sun and the accompanying heat are fine for the hardier plants—summer squash and eggplant among them—but the relative cool and steady light (thanks to fluorescent fixtures and automatic timers) of the basement suit the more tender romaine and red leaf to a T.

And a trickle of water for 30 minutes every other day may be enough for ascetics such as the tomatoes but lettuces, hedonistically, would rather bask in constant humidity and completely moist soil, thank you very much.

I find it hard to believe that the romaine and red leaf lettuces we seeded back in March—and early March, at that—are still producing new leaves as they sit quietly in their planter boxes. They’re not alone down there: one Yellow Brandywine and two Yellow Belle pepper seedlings share space with them. These companions, though, are not yet producing.

Although still healthy, the lettuces are becoming stemmier (if that is a word) in preparation for bolting; one of the plants is about a foot high. At the same time, the leaves are thinning and they do not hold moisture as well. Their texture is leathery and their flavor more bitter. Five months is old for lettuce.

So, enough cutting and coming back. We’ll clear-cut what remains and have a big salad for dinner. That will be the end of the spring lettuce.

It won’t, however, be the end of the lettuce. Also growing in the basement is a lone head of romaine, the only one to sprout from our summer sowing in June. If it performs like its siblings before it, we’ll be eating fresh lettuce in October.

We decided to pack the root vegetables in closely this year. We’ll cram six rows of carrots, radishes, beets and turnips into the east planter, completely filling the space in front of the Sugar Snap peas.

Four of the rows are already planted, two in April and two in May. The April bunch is in mid-production. We’re harvesting turnips and radishes—or their greens—on an almost daily basis. The beets are trailing behind a bit but we’ll start picking their greens soon. And seedlings for the turnips, radishes and beets sowed in May are pushing their way out of the soil.

But where are the carrots?

After a casual glance at the planter, one might not realize that carrots are growing there at all. There is no sign of those we planted in April and the May seeds have yet to germinate; their half of the row is empty.

That’s because we made a miscalculation when we laid out the rows. Carrots share with radishes in the first, northernmost, row. The next row going south contains turnips and beets and then the order repeats. At the west end of the planter, then, the rows alternate carrot-turnip-carrot-turnip-carrot-turnip, from north to south.

Now, carrots are very slow to germinate and when they do, put up frilly greens not unlike the dill or parsley to which they are related. Once sprouted, their growth remains slow. We don’t expect to be eating them until the end of June.

Turnips, on the other hand, are crucifers with tall, broad leaves. They grow quickly and profusely. They are among the first to germinate (along with the radishes) and soon grow into a dense hedgerow (albeit, at garden scale). The batch we planted in April is currently a foot high.

Hiding behind them are the carrots. Unfortunately, they won’t see the light of day until the turnips have all been harvested. Had we reversed the planting order, putting the turnips to the north, the carrots would not have been affected, at least not until the following row of turnips sprouted. I’ll try to remember this next year.

Fortunately, another consequence of the fast pace of the turnips is that they will soon be eaten, leaving the carrots to have their days in the sun.

Two of this year’s late additions to the garden—Tricolor Pattypan squash and Early Fortune cucumbers—have been racing to catch up to their cousins. The latecomers were planted at the beginning of the month (see May 9, 2014) while the Cavili zucchini, Supersett Yellow Crookneck squash, Alibi Pickling cornichons, and Tanja slicing cucumber seeds were sowed two months earlier. That’s a lot of time to make up.

However, it looks like they are up to the task. Most of the seedlings are already four inches in height; one the of the pattypan squash plants is twice as high. I potted them up as I was sure that their roots had run out of space in the compartments of the seed tray.

When transplanting the pattypans, I carefully labeled each seedling’s plastic pot with the color of the seed that produced it. Eventually, I will determine which seed—red, green or buff—produced yellow, white or green squashes.

The only stragglers now are the Yellow Belle peppers. They have yet to unfurl their first pairs of true leaves and remain somewhat dainty, in contrast to the brash squash and the more decorous but still exuberant cucumbers. They are not ready to be potted up. In fact, they do not appear to be in any rush to do anything.

Meanwhile, all of the other seedlings have been enjoying their daily trips to the back porch where they absorb a moderate dose of solar energy and respire the fresh air (I would say breath, but a plant’s process is the opposite of ours). I’m glad, too, that they are going indoors at night. Even though it is Memorial Day—the traditional start of the summer season—lows remain in the 40s. We’ll not be setting the seedlings out anytime soon.

It turns out that when I was describing the benefits of crop rotation two weeks ago (see May 4, 2014), I was only half right. The process can be much more complicated—and substantially more advantageous—than merely planting different families of plants in different plots each season. The key is choosing what to plant and the order in which to plant it.

A good example of a more scientific approach to crop rotation is described in an Op-Ed piece by Dan Barber, chef of the restaurants Blue Hill (in New York City) and Blue Hill at Stone Barns (in Pocantico Hills, New York), that appears in today’s New York Times (see “What Farm-to-Table Got Wrong”).

Chef Barber buys his wheat from a farmer in upstate New York. On a visit to the farm, he learned that the wheat is only planted at the end of a four-year cycle of carefully selected crops, each of which performs a specific task for conditioning the soil. The procession follows a basic order which can be modified as soil response and weather patterns dictate.

First up is a cover crop such as mustard, which cleanses the soil and adds nutrients. Next is a legume to fix Nitrogen. Rye follows which, apparently, crowds out weeds (and also “builds soil structure”, although no explanation is given as to what exactly this means). Last to be planted is the wheat, the crop that outsiders (and until recently, Chef Barber) would think of as the whole point of this enterprise.

What is lamentable in the wheat farmer’s case is that the market for what those outsiders might call the off-season crops—the mustard, peas and rye—is scarce. While the wheat commands high, New York City prices, the other vegetables and grains go unwanted and often end up as feed for animals raised as food. Such use is not considered by most experts to be a very efficient use of resources.

Chef’s response to this situation was to develop menu items at his restaurants that incorporate the lesser crops and thereby elevate their stature and, presumably, their price (I hope that he pays his farmer as much for the mustard, peas and rye as he does for the wheat). It’s an elegant solution—a no-brainer, in retrospect—and also a win-win. Really, it’s a win-win-win because not only do the farmer and the chef benefit but the patrons of Blue Hill get tasty meals out of it, too.

So, how might this concept apply to the backyard gardener? Well, I’m not sure about growing an entire planter full of rye or mustard but half of a planter mixed with other like vegetables or grains might work (especially if Chef shares his recipes). And I never feel like we have enough Sugar Snap peas so the year of legumes would not be a problem. The primary issue is space, something we never seem to have enough of.

Maybe the question for me is, where can I put two more planters?

At breakfast last Saturday morning (pancakes and eggs at our favorite local joint), we started in on early planning for this year’s garden.  The first thing we concluded is that we are not really early.  By some reckonings, we should have sowed seeds for thyme last month and could be starting other herbs right now.  The second thing we concluded is that, once again, we are behind schedule.

Luckily, the choices of what to plant this year were relatively easy decisions even though a fair amount of thought went into each one.  We started with the list of plants we grew last year and then applied a few different criteria to assess their success.

The most important criterion for each vegetable is our answer to the question, did we like it?  It doesn’t matter how well it grew or how much it produced if, at the end of the day, we won’t eat it.  Of last year’s crops—those that actually yielded fruit—the only one that did not absolutely thrill us was the Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomatoes.  They were not bad, per se, but they didn’t leave us wanting for more.  Consequently, we will not grow them again this year.

There was one plant whose fruit we could not taste.  The Delicata winter squash did set fruit—several of them—but was not able to develop any of them to maturity.  And that leads to the next criterion, performance.  Plants that did not thrive last year may not be suited to our particular microclimate.  Then again, we may not have given them what they needed, either.

So, what besides the Delicata did not perform?  Well, the Kabocha winter squash produced only one specimen by the end of the year and it was a small one at that.  That’s two strikes against the winter squashes and based on this meager showing, I was tempted to say that we should try other varieties this year or skip them altogether.

However, roasted with a little olive oil and salt, the Kabocha squash was absolutely delicious.  It passed the first criteria with flying colors even though it showed weakly on the second.  Similarly, although we were not able to sample the produce of our Delicata, it is one of my favorite varieties (we often buy it at the farmers’ market).  Therefore, we will try the Delicata and Kabocha squashes again.

The next criterion then is, why did these vegetables underperform?  My best guess is that we underfed them.  I haven’t reported on last year’s testing yet (look for a future posting) but soil properties are a definite suspect.  The areas we planted with the squash were newly formed last year and have not had much chance to stabilize.  This spring, we will probably need to enrich their soil and fertilize them more frequently.

The same could be true of the summer squashes—both the yellow crookneck and pale green zucchini—and the cucumbers—one a pickling variant and the other a slicing type—all of which we planted in more or less the same area (the ground surrounding the planters) and with roughly the same soil (equal parts of compost and peat moss).

Despite these similarities, however, their performance was quite different.  Three of the four summer squash vines were hugely productive (especially the alpha crookneck; see August 6, 2013) whereas the cucumbers produced only a modest quantity of fruit before fading away in mid-summer.  Two other factors could account for the differences.

First, the amount of soil we introduced for the cucumbers was much, much less than for the squashes.  This is partly because of their location between the pool fence and planters but mostly because the cucumbers were the last seedlings we planted.  By that time, we were tired!  Our native soil is rocky and very difficult to dig but we will have to face up to doing more of it this year.  Adding to and amending the soil will be an early spring chore.

Second, the cucumbers were stricken hard by powdery mildew and once afflicted, perished rapidly.  It is not clear (and probably never will be) whether this was due to their undernourished state or simply because the varieties we planted are more susceptible than others to powdery mildew.  The squashes, on the other hand, seem better able to continue to produce after contracting the disease.  Each of the squash vines was still setting fruit into the fall.

Both of these are factors we can mitigate—or try to mitigate, anyway—and so we will plant both types of summer squash and both types of cucumbers again.  To help control the powdery mildew (which is endemic in the northeast), we will plant in new locations.  I will also arm myself with a spray bottle full of baking soda solution which I will apply early and often.  With diligence—and luck—we will have more squash and cucumbers than we can eat this year.

While we were visiting a friend in his home (lucky us, he had invited us for one of his fantastic brunches), he asked about the purple string beans:  Do they, he wondered, taste any different from the green ones?

It is a good question.  Purple is an unusual color in the vegetable garden, second only to blue in rarity (is there any blue comestible other than blueberries?).  And while color is not always an indicator of flavor—the taste of red and green apples is not that different, for instance—it can be, especially when the color difference is due to ripeness, or lack thereof.

The answer to our friend’s question, though, is:  No; the purple string beans taste more or less the same as do the green ones.  In fact, as the beans cook, the purple fades away, leaving only the familiar green tint.  This is because heat and loss of acidity (due to dilution in neutral water) break down the anthocyanins that produce the color purple.  Chlorophyll, the green pigment (and component of photosynthesis), is apparently more stable.  (If we grow the purple string beans again next year—which is likely—I might try cooking a batch in vinegar or lemon juice to see whether that preserves the purple color.)

That matter resolved, I’ll ask my own follow-up questions:  What about the other vegetables growing in our garden?  Does their color dictate the flavor?

Well, as an indicator of ripeness, sure.  An unripe green tomato has a vastly different taste compared to a ripe red one.  We don’t grow them here, but apples (and most other fruits) exhibit this property.  It should be noted, however, that not all vegetables change color as they ripen.  Eggplant, for instance, starts purple and stays purple throughout its growth (and even its blossoms are tinged with purple).

But what about different colors of ripe tomato?  Do the yellow and orange varieties have a different flavor from the traditional red ones?  How about tomatoes that are green when ripe?  Furthermore, are the differences in flavor, if any, due to the color or is the color just an indicator of the difference?

Answering the last question first, I think the color is merely an indicator of a difference in flavor and not the cause of it.  The various colors of tomato do have varying flavors but the variations are due to different levels of sugar and acidity.  And as noted above, pigments react very differently to acidity.  Typical red tomatoes are relatively high in acidity so acid-resistant pigments like carotenoids (of which lycopene is the most common in tomatoes) will dominate their color.

At the other end of the spectrum (in both flavor and color), orange, yellow, green and purple (sometimes referred to as black) tomatoes are sweeter in flavor, a result of their being lower in acid.  Another consequence of higher pH is that pigments less resistant to acid, such as the anthocyanins, can survive in their colored state and contribute to the tomatoes their distinctive hues.  In other words, the pigments act as a natural litmus test to visually signify flavor.

This is only a quasi-scientific analysis but it makes sense, at least for the tomatoes.  In addition to the tomatoes, we also planted different colors of carrots, radishes, beets and bell peppers this year.  To my taste buds, the red and white-striped Chioggia beets tasted the same as the Touchstone Gold and neither tasted any different from the typical all-red variety.

Similarly, there was only one significant difference between the taste of our Quadrato d’Asti Rosso (red) and Orange Sun (guess) bell peppers and the common green variety.  The peppers we grew tasted less grassy, a flavor component that I can only call “green”.  This is a good thing because that grassiness usually puts me off bell peppers.

Our radish crop was not sufficiently successful to make an assessment of their flavors but the carrots, which flourished a wide rainbow of colors, also yielded an array of flavors.  The orange were the most typical (no surprise there) while the yellow and white were woodier and the purple were sweeter.  The range in flavor was not quite as great as in color or as stark as with the tomatoes but there was definitely a correlation.

An inescapable consequence of anxiously awaiting something is that the feeling of impatience seems to make everything take longer.  It makes me think of the old Heinz ketchup commercial which used Carly Simon’s song, “Anticipation”, as its theme.  The characters’ thoughts of devouring a hamburger and fries made the ketchup appear to slow to a glacial pace as it oozed from the bottle and onto the food.

We’ve been anxious to start eating tomatoes (fresh ones, not those boiled down to ketchup) and have been avoiding buying them at the farmers’ market each weekend.  It is true that we’ve been enjoying cherry tomatoes for a few weeks already but the full-sized varieties seem to be developing more slowly (despite the vines’ rapid growth) and have only just started to ripen in useful quantities.  Anticipation has been making them late and keeping us waiting.

Only, it turns out that they aren’t late.  At least, not based on the days to maturity listed on the seed packets.  Given the time we sowed the tomato seeds (late March) and when we set out the seedlings (Memorial Day weekend), most of the tomato plants produced mature fruit before, on, or only a few days after the expected date.  The only exception is the Yellow Brandywines, the first of which we picked today.

(Now, I know that the days to maturity are only guidelines and that there is some confusion about when to start counting, the consensus seeming to be the date of setting out.  However, with my literal nature, I tend to take them as gospel.  According to my spreadsheet—yes, I have a spreadsheet—the Yellow Brandywines were expected on August 20.  It is now 16 days later; therefore they are late.)

Similarly, we had all but given up on the eggplants.  The seed package promised ripe eggplants by early August.  I would have been happy with unripe fruit by then or anything by now.  So far, though, we have had only blossoms (beautiful as they are).  But then they surprised us and as of today, two eggplants have set (I think there was one last week that succumbed to blossom end rot before getting very far).  I’m no prophet and I don’t know nature’s ways (that’s a bit of an understatement) but I’m very hopeful about the prospect of fresh eggplants in a few weeks.

Also, after a long wait (more than three weeks by my reckoning) the bell peppers are starting to turn.  At first, there was just a hint of orange, a blush of red.  But then came a burst of color as the rate of enzymatic processes increased exponentially.  They are now mostly orange or red (depending on their variety) with only underlying remnants of green.  Having already waited this long, we will give them another few days to mature fully.

The anticipation should make us enjoy them even more.  Or in other words (to paraphrase from Heinz), the taste will be worth the wait.