Archives for posts with tag: string beans

Well, the temperature never dropped below 40 degrees, so there was no real danger of frost.  Yes, 40 degrees is cold—more wintery than autumnal—but not low enough to damage anything.  Still, everybody (people included) will be moving slowly until the sun warms us up again.

Of course, the frost warning underscores the fact that we are in an end-of-season race with the weather.  We have plenty of fruit—tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, string beans and squash—that could potentially ripen if given enough time.  The question is, will a damaging frost or freeze occur before the vegetables are ready for harvest?  It’ll be a closer finish than I think because the days are shorter and the garden more shaded than in summer.

If the summer squashes froze, it would be no great loss; they have yielded many fruits already this year and, in fact, this is the first season that we have actually had enough.  The same is true of the string beans.  We will make one more search through the vines to collect the stragglers before pulling the vines out.

There are many tomatoes left and it would be a shame if most of them cannot reach maturity.  On the other hand, there is plenty that can be done with them when green.

We didn’t get many bell peppers but we did enjoy the few we had (with sausage and onions).  There are several in the earliest stages of development (right now, they are green miniatures of their full-grown selves).  It would be nice to have a few more but I consider this year’s experience to be research into ways to achieve better success next year.

My main hope is that the eggplants can survive until they are ready for harvest.  At their current size of about three inches in length, they would not make much of a meal (although I’m sure that they will be delicious at any size).  If we are lucky, however, they will continue to enlarge until big enough for us to throw on the grill or roast in the oven.  Two of them have a good chance; the others are questionable.

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Just before shutting down my computer this evening, I took one last look at the weather forecast.  Some people compulsively check the stock market and others keep close track of baseball (and other sports) scores.  I’m addicted to the weather.

I was rudely surprised to see that the National Weather Service had posted a Frost Advisory for later tonight and into tomorrow morning.  Where did this come from?  Yes, the forecast has been calling for cooler temperatures, with highs in the 70s and lows in the 40s and 50s, but frost?  Really?

And what am I supposed to do with this information, at such a late hour?  The warning was not posted until about 6:00 pm.  That gives me only an hour before the sun sets.

Not that more warning would have been particularly useful.  Although the number of plants remaining in the garden is diminishing, there are still several growing strong.  And all of them are either tall (e.g., the tomatoes and string beans) or spread out (the squashes).  It’s not like I can easily throw a tarp over the entire yard.  (Well, I suppose could do that, but it wouldn’t be easy.)

I imagine that some farmers will be firing up their smudge pots tonight.  A common sight in orchards and vineyards, these oil-burning heaters produce a high-volume of slow-rising smoke—some call it artificial smog—which I always thought enveloped the plants and slowed their cooling.

Turns out they work more like the large fans that other growers—such as an apple orchard we visited last weekend—will be switching on instead.  Both the heaters and the fans circulate the lower levels of the atmosphere, moving colder air at the surface upwards and bringing down warmer air from the overlying inversion layer.

I love the idea of having one of the monster fans in my backyard (I could connect it to my propane tank) but I suspect they are very expensive (no, I’m not seriously considering it).  So this time, we’ll take our chances and do nothing.  Despite the advisory, the forecast low is 44 degrees, well above freezing.  I’m not too worried but we’ll see how things look in the morning.

Warning:  Insect photo below.

We have reached—and moved beyond—the point of diminishing returns on the basil.  It has grown much faster than we can use it and now, the leaves are starting to deflate and turn yellow.  The plants still smell divine—this has been by far the most aromatic basil I have ever grown—and their flavor remains bold and clear.  But the basil won’t be getting any better and could easily start to degrade.

Therefore, we decided to end the season for the original planting (at the southeast corner of the east planter) and clear-cut the lot.  Doing so produced a huge pile of leaves, enough for several batches of pesto.  In addition to the usual recipe—with pine nuts and parmesan—we will vary the nut and cheese options.  One batch will use walnuts or pistachio nuts and another will include Pecorino Romano.  We’ll also make what might more aptly be called basil paste, with neither nuts nor cheese.

The basil’s corner of the planter now looks a bit ravaged, like a miniature tornado tore through it.  Eventually, I will pull out the stubs and roots as part of my fall clean-up.  Meanwhile, the more recently planted basil in the southwest corner of the planter will provide enough green leaves to add to salads, etc., until the first frost.  If we get enough warning (the National Weather Service is not always timely), we will clear-cut this basil as well.

Because I already had the clippers out (and I had to use the big ones; the basil stems were large and tough), I took yet another pass at pruning the tomato vines.  My periodic cutting and trimming has been keeping them partially in control although the branches are still more tightly entwined than I would like.  It is reassuring that the plants remain healthy and robust.

I had been holding my breath, hoping that we might make it through the year without seeing a tomato hornworm.  But, really, what was I thinking?  Sure enough, as I was untangling a couple of Brandywine branches, I uncovered a large hornworm, calmly munching away.  It hadn’t done much damage but I shudder to think of how many leaves it could have eaten if it had been left undiscovered.

This is the latest in the season we have made it without finding any of them.  Last year, the first hornworm appeared in mid-August; in 2011, we had two broods, one in mid-July (which seems very early) and another in late-September.  After three seasons of vegetable gardening, I have concluded that the presence of this particular pest falls into the “inevitable” category.  If you grow them (tomatoes), they (hornworms) will come.

At the other end of the garden, the Purple Amethyst and Roma II string beans have been quietly producing an abundance of beans.  Perhaps stealthily would be a better description.  A casual glance at the plants—a wall of leafy vines clinging to the trellis—might mislead one into thinking that no beans were present.  But after reaching into the vines and pushing the leaves aside, a multitude of ripening beans is revealed.  They dangle vertically, parallel to the vines and protected from the sun by the leaves.

We are growing purple beans, which aside from their color look quite typical, and Italian-style beans, which are wider and flatter with larger lumps (the actual beans).  Rachel grew up with the latter but they are relatively new to me.  They have a distinctly vegetal flavor—their taste might be the definition of green—and are delicious steamed and/or sautéed with lots of butter.

We’re not the only ones who like them.  Several of the beans had been tunneled through by creatures unknown.  They are some type of worm, judging by the entry and exit holes, and left the beans looking like Swiss cheese.

Warning:  Insect photo below.

Fall returned this week, like an old friend who had been away visiting others for a few months (family in the southern hemisphere, I believe).  It is good to see the autumn come around again and bittersweet to watch as our houseguest, summer, packs up and leaves.  We had some good times these past three months but we’ll have more fun with a different crowd in the months ahead.

The changing season gives me a warm feeling, even while the weather is turning decidedly cooler.  On the one hand, a swim in the pool has almost suddenly lost its appeal (time to close it soon) and I can actually wear long trousers, having faced up to the possibility a week ago.  In the morning, I need a sweatshirt when I go out for a run.

On the other hand, sleeping is much more comfortable.  The air is crisper—although not yet as dry as it will be in winter—and warms up by late morning.  It can be almost as hot as in summer, in an absolute sense, but the heat is usually moderated by cool breezes.  The sun is lower and shade is more plentiful; it provides a handy respite from the still-intense rays of light.  All things considered, this a good time to be outdoors.

Unless you are a vegetable.  Many of the plants have withered away, leaving only bare spots behind.  I’ve already mentioned the shortening day and increasing solar screening by adjacent trees (see August 25, 2013).  Now, with overnight temperatures dropping into the 50s and 60s, the vegetables’ growth rate has slowed to a crawl.  The tomatoes, green beans and squash are still producing but not as much and not as often.

The vegetables are starting to miss their summer companion and will soon be joining its exodus from the garden.

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.

Funny what will happen when you aren’t looking.

Due to a combination of other activities (which used up all of my available time) and inclement weather (which kept me indoors when I was not out running errands), I did not make it into the garden yesterday until after dark.  I made an inspection as best I could (the solar-powered bird lights from Ikea do not cast much light) but was only able to determine that nothing major had occurred in the garden all day.

Or so I thought.  This morning, while making my rounds, I discovered that most of the string beans have sprouted.  And “sprouted” would be an understatement.  Not only have the seeds germinated and the stems pushed their way to the soil surface, but already, the seedlings are three to four inches tall.

String beans produce stocky stems right from the start and most of the stems already support a pair of true leaves.  With only two days of growth, some of them already look larger and hardier than the beets, which have been growing since April.  The seedlings of the Bush II beans are a bright pea-green while the stems of the Amethyst purple pole beans are a ruddy green, a color similar to rhubarb.

The seedlings emerged two days before the early estimate provided on the seed package.  Funny how fast a plant will grow when the conditions are right.

Early morning is the best time to garden, while it is light but the plants are still shaded by the eastern trees.  And when the weather is hot, as it has been lately, early morning is the coolest time of day.  Once the sun clears the trees and starts shining on us directly, everything heats up.

Having eaten the last of the Sugar Snap peas last night (we chose to make them the last; the plants probably would have continued to produce), I carefully removed the vines today.  They had formed an interwoven fabric of stems, branches and tendrils that was firmly anchored to the trellis.  Pulling the vines free of the trellis without damaging it required some effort and concentration.

In the process, I found one pea that Rachel missed, despite her careful inspection of the plants, stem by stem.  I know from my own experience that the pea pods, even when they are large and plump, can hide in plain sight, blending in as they do with the surrounding leaves and branches.

And, in fact, I also found several peas that we had missed weeks ago.  Yesterday’s escapee was plump and sweet (I later gave it to Rachel to snack on); the older evasive peas, ensconced in tangles of leaves and tendrils, were shriveled and black (and completely unappetizing).

When I was finished with the demolition, Rachel joined me.  After clearing away the mulch, we sowed seeds for two types of string beans:  Amethyst Purple Filet Beans (to the west) and Roma II Bush Beans (to the east).  Working quickly (the sun was starting to rise above the treetops), we spaced holes at about two inches on center, using our fingers as dibbles.  Bean seeds are easy to plant (they are simply dried peas) and we were done in a matter of minutes.

String beans are slowpokes (55 to 70 days to maturity) and we will have a bit of a wait before we can eat them.  We should have the bush beans by late August.  The filet beans—a bright purple variety I remember my mother growing when I was in high school—take even longer to mature.  We will not be eating them until after Labor Day.

The second best time to garden is dusk.  As the sun drops to the horizon, there is an almost audible sigh of relief from the earth as the seemingly relentless barrage of light and heat diminishes and cooling begins.  Starting at about 6:30, there are one to two hours of twilight during which a lot of work can be done before it gets too dark.

On Sunday—a day of blistering sun—I spent those precious evening hours pruning the tomato plants and tying them to their cages.  I also retied the bell peppers and eggplants (moving their Velcro straps upwards) which have grown much taller in the summer warmth.

We finished what we thought would be the last of the Sugar Snap peas the other day and I was considering pulling them out in preparation for sowing seeds for green beans.  But although there are currently no peas developing, each plant is producing another round of blossoms.  We’ll wait another few days to see if a late crop forms before we move on.  The peas are a short-lived treat and if there is the chance of a few more, I’ll take it.  There is plenty of time for the string beans.

For the last few days, I have been worried about the slow growth of the tomato plants.  The weather conditions up until now have been almost exactly the opposite of what they prefer (cool and wet versus warm and dry).  Reassuringly, however, the vines are finally showing signs of life.  As of today, they have all reached the second rung of their cages.

Not only are they taller and fuller but the Sungolds have sent forth their first branches of blossoms.  The flowers are only just formed and have not yet completely opened but once they do, they are sure to attract bees and other pollinators.  After that, it will not be long until we see cherry tomatoes.  Of course, we will still have to wait for them to grow and ripen but it is encouraging nonetheless.

All of the tomato plants are sprouting new branches, some which are low on the stem, as far down as the soil surface.  Using clippers, we nipped off all new growth lower than about six inches above the ground.  This will help keep the lowest portion of the plants dry and exposed to ventilating breezes.

Suckers have also started to form at most of the existing branches.  Now, I’m generally a proponent of aggressive pruning and my first reaction was to remove all of them.  This is the policy to which I adhered last year and certainly, the tomato vines were much easier to manage and tie to the cages.  But they also had fewer branches on which fruit could develop and that may have contributed to last year’s meager harvest (I don’t think it was the only reason).

This year, I will take a more moderate stance and assess each budding branch individually.  If a sucker is located where there are already several branches (or otherwise lush foliage), I will clip it off.  Alternatively, if a sucker forms where the plant is sparse, I’ll let it grow in.  The goal will be a uniformly full plant without undue congestion.

The summer squash plants also seem to have shifted into a higher gear and are beginning to fill out.  The only exception is one of the zucchini vines.  It otherwise looks normal but is only about half of the size of its sibling.  It is like someone hit it with a shrinking ray.  Actually, its color is also not as deeply green as its sister plant, which may be an indication that it is struggling.  Perhaps a dose of fertilizer to spur its growth?

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?

With a big snowstorm approaching, we sat down with the seed catalogs today to continue—in a much more concrete way—our planning for the upcoming growing season.  We intend to start just about everything from seed this year and having made that decision, our options are much, much wider than they were last year.

Instead of being limited to the seedlings at our farmers’ market or garden center, we can choose from scores of different varieties of each type of plant.  And given the number of seed catalogs out there, the possibilities are practically unlimited (or let’s just say that they are only limited by our time and patience).

We wiled away an hour or two flipping through the pages of the John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds catalog, trying to keep in mind what vegetables we actually eat (as opposed to what sounds interesting) and what our experience was last year.  When we had gone through every page, here is what we picked:

  • Sugar Ann Snap Peas
  • Amethyst Purple Filet Bean
  • Roma II Bush Beans
  • Black Opal Eggplant
  • Rainbow Carrot Mixture (Atomic Red, Purple Dragon, Red Samurai, Royal Chantenay, Snow White and Yellowstone varieties)
  • Tanja Slicing Cucumbers
  • Alibi Pickling Cucumbers
  • Gourmet Rainbow Radish Mixture (Flamboyant French Breakfast, Feugo, Hailstone, Helios Yellow, Pink Celebration, Plum Purple, Roodkapje and White Icicle)
  • Jericho Romaine Lettuce
  • Red Salad Bowl Loose-Leaf Lettuce
  • Chioggia Beets
  • Touchstone Gold Beets
  • White Lady Turnips
  • Cavili Zucchini
  • Supersett Yellow Crookneck Summer Squash
  • Country Taste Beefsteak Tomatoes
  • Aunt Ruby’s German Green Tomatoes
  • Brandywine Tomatoes
  • Yellow Brandywine Tomatoes
  • Sungold Cherry Tomatoes
  • Black Cherry Tomatoes
  • Naguri Kabocha-Type Squash
  • Zeppelin Delicata Squash
  • Quadrato d’Asti Rosso Bell Peppers
  • Orange Sun Bell Peppers

Listed longhand like that, it seems like a lot of different vegetables.  However, there are only two more different types of vegetable than we had last year (the carrots and turnips).  Of these, the tomato, cucumber, eggplant and bell pepper seeds should be started indoors (and soon!).  Seeds for the rest can be sown directly in the garden, starting in early April.

We are also considering a few vegetables that we have never grown before but think might be manageable (and that we would actually eat):  Asparagus, Broccoli, Cauliflower and Bean Sprouts.  We can wait to start broccoli and cauliflower until mid-summer while beans can be sprouted indoors, anytime.

Asparagus would be a lot of fun to grow (and it will grow here; we have seen it at Stonecrop Gardens).  And yet, it would be a long-term commitment as it must be grown in a protected spot its first year and then given several seasons to reach harvestable production.  But it would be worth it to have this harbinger of spring growing in our own garden.

Our goal is to get the seed trays, lighting, heat (if needed), etc., prepared by the end of the month so that we can start sowing—and watering and lighting—at the beginning of March.  This will give us at least two months of indoor growing before transplanting the seedlings outdoors in May.