Archives for posts with tag: summer

Our vegetables are giving us a visual reminder that the bright reds and greens of summer have transitioned—gradually, incrementally—into the oranges, yellows, and purples of fall.

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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.

The days are getting shorter and the shadows are growing longer…

As noted on their license plates, the State of Maine is known as Vacationland. And now I know why.

Rachel and I have driven up to Rockport for the weekend (we’re mixing Rachel’s business and our vacation) and have discovered that the Maine coast is just one big family resort. The woods and forests are pristine, the coastline long and scraggly, and the air is clear and fresh. There are also some good restaurants here (lobster, anyone?).

But, most of all, the climate is perfect. Here we are in the middle of August—the summer’s peak, really—and the midday temperature is in the mid-70s. That’s warm enough to wear shorts and a tee shirt with no worry of overheating. It might be as humid as it is at home (that would be due to the proximity of the ocean) but it’s so moderate in temperature that it feels comfortable.

In short, the weather is perfect for spending the entire day outdoors. Anything that can be done outside is at its best when done here: Hiking, boating, swimming, cycling…

…and gardening.

It turns out that there are many lush gardens in Maine. Most of the houses we’ve seen have a plot of vegetables or flowers—or both—in their yards. And a garden center near our hotel is one of the biggest I’ve seen anywhere, with an astonishingly diverse assortment of growing things. Who would have expected it?

Not me. I always thought that with its short growing season and cold, icy winters that Maine would not be ideal for gardening. The climate (I figured) might be suitable for evergreens and chrysanthemums but not tomatoes.

What I failed to consider is that although the growing season may be short, the growing day is long. Sixteen hours of sunlight per day, it appears, more than makes up for the loss of May and September.

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.

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.

This year, I am determined not to lose the battle against powdery mildew.

It’s probably a futile goal—quixotic, really—because we have suffered it every year that we’ve kept the vegetable garden, starting in 2011. Spores of Erysiphe cichoracearum, the fungus responsible for powdery mildew in cucurbits, are present, brought here from elsewhere by the wind (most likely) or by spontaneous manifestation (not likely but it is easy to understand why people once believed in it).

Sadly, the fungus is well-suited to survival and produces resting spores called chasmothecia (all of this is according to the folks at UC Davis; see “UC IPM Online”) that can—and do—resist the freezing weather that kills off weaker organism over winter. The only way to eradicate it is with fungicide, the most effective of which I have no interest in using.

No, eradication is not the answer; management is. And the key to management of powdery mildew is anticipation and early detection. It will appear—that’s inevitable—so I must be ready for it. And that means starting to spray the leaves of the cucurbits, which in our garden are the cucumbers and squash, with a preventative solution and starting to spray them now.

Last year, I found a good recipe on Late Bloomer’s website (see “Late Bloomer – National Heirloom Expo 2013 – Episode 36”; there is other interesting stuff there) and I mixed up a batch today. It’s a simple concoction of water, baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, and dish detergent (which I suspect is there to help the solution adhere to the plant).

I made a loop through the garden this afternoon, spraying each cucumber and squash leaf as I passed. My intuition tells me that spraying while the garden is in direct sunlight is preferable because the sun will evaporate the water, leaving the NaHCO3 and H2O2 (I have no idea what is the chemical formula for dish detergent but it’s probably too long to fit) behind to coat the leaves and inhibit fungal growth.

For the remainder of the season, especially in the fall when the humidity of summer remains but the nights are cooler, I will have to re-spray on a weekly (or so) basis.

Maybe I can’t win the battle but perhaps if I am diligent, I (and the cucurbits) won’t be routed.

One vegetable dies, another takes its place.

One plant germinates, sprouts its tiny stems, spreads its leaves, grows larger, offers its colorful blossoms to eager pollinators, sets fruit, and then gradually, or sometimes quickly, puts forth a bounty of shiny produce to the gardener who tended it.

And then, more quickly, the plant fades away, its produce picked and its energy spent. No more pretty flowers or tasty vegetables. Most plants simply wither away at this point although biennials will contentedly continue to absorb and store energy for their flowering the second year (not having flowered or produced seed in the first).

Depending on the time of year and the climate, that leaves a vacancy in the garden, a void that would be wasted if left unfilled. If it is early enough in the summer and the first frost is not expected until late fall, there is plenty of time for a fast-growing vegetable—radishes are a good example—to repeat the cycle of life and death before winter descends.

That’s how succession gardening is supposed to work, anyway.

In the best planned garden, there is more to it than squeezing a second round of produce into the growing season. With careful selection of the first vegetable planted, when it is through the soil will be well prepared (even if depleted in some respects) for the plant that follows it. Likewise, the second vegetable, if chosen with thought, will leave the soil ready for what is sowed the next spring. This process can be stretched out over multiple seasons in what becomes long-term crop rotation (see May 18, 2014).

Theoretically, we follow this approach. In practice, we do the best we can. I’ve already described our crop rotation strategy (see May 4, 2014) and for succession planting, we do multiple sowings of root vegetables, including two or three early in the season and one late in the season, for which we are about due.

We also planted a mid-season replacement for the Sugar Snap peas, the last of which we harvested this morning. There were still plenty of peas but production had slowed and the leaves had begun to turn yellow. New growth had appeared at the base of several vines and I was tempted to wait to see whether it would bear fruit. But wanting to move on, we pulled them out.

In their place we sowed string beans. We planted the same varieties as last year—Amethyst Purple and Roma II—knowing that they are fast-growing and prolific (assuming the seeds are still viable, of course). I don’t know whether string beans are a good successor to peas in terms of soil conditioning but I do know that they are the only other vegetable we grow that needs trellising.

Also, I love to eat them.

I know I’ve mentioned it many times before but I’m not going to let that stop me: Saying yes to one thing means saying no to others. I repeat it so often because it is still true.

Sometimes, the “no” is explicit—someone asks for something and the request cannot be granted—but it need not be. More often, the time and energy available are consumed by the committed tasks and at the end of the day, there are no resources left for the things not committed to. Stuff just does not happen.

It isn’t hard to guess where I’m going with this. I recently said yes to some work for my former partners. A large chunk of my time is now committed to this worthwhile—and quite enjoyable—project and, as a result, I have less time for other things, most notably this blog. That is why my posts have been few and far between lately.

Now, this is not to say that my blogging is less worthwhile or less enjoyable than the other work. Nothing could be farther from the truth. No, blogging has simply become less urgent; it remains very important to me. I admit to feeling a little discomfort with this—the puritanical worker in me wants to do everything, to get it done, now!—but I know I will catch up. Anyway, it is summer, a time when the pace is slower and more relaxed. For all I know, my readers are on vacation or tending their own gardens.

Nor does my not writing about the garden mean that nothing is happening there. To the contrary, the planters are bursting with growth, especially the east planter with its bounty of root vegetables (most especially, the turnips) and snap peas, while the cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, eggplant, and bell peppers are preparing to carry out their own surge.

The most comforting aspect of the garden is that at this time of year, it practically takes care of itself. It basks in the sun by day, receives gentle watering from the timed hoses or occasional thunderstorm in the evening, and, at intervals, enjoys a little love from Rachel and me. Because in addition to everything else we are doing, we are both still chanting “yes!” to the garden.

We had a relatively warm and bright morning today, something that we will not have many more of (the warm part, anyway) until spring.  So, after breakfast, we performed another round of fall clean-up in the garden.

It is not as if everything is dead or dying—there has been no killing frost so far—and yet, nothing is developing very quickly.  The growth of the squashes, in particular, has slowed to a near stop.  There are plenty of zucchini and crooknecks and even a few large yellow blossoms—all beaming like it was still August—but none of the squashes has gotten any bigger than a few inches in length.

I have to keep in mind that the squashes are summer vegetables and we are now squarely in fall.  The zucchini and crooknecks are past their season and it is time to let them go.

Pulling out the vines was relatively easy.  The only difficult part was finding where they were rooted to the ground.  Summer squashes grow from one central stem along which the leaves and fruit radiate.  After the squashes ripen and are harvested, the leaves wither and die, leaving their section of stem barren.

At the same time, the leading tip of the stem continues to grow outward and new leaves, blossoms and fruit are created.  As a result, after four months of bounteous growth, the vines reach a length of several feet.  The active end gets separated from its starting point and the intervening stem gets buried by fallen trees leaves.  At a casual glance, it looks as though the vines have moved around the garden.

The winter squashes we grew this year develop in a similar manner.  But instead of letting the Naguri squash (a Kabocha-like variety) trail spread out on the ground, we trained it up and around a tripod of garden stakes.  When we removed the vine last week (see October 13, 2013 for photos), it had reached the top of the tripod, within striking distance of the temple bell that hangs there.

The Zeppelin Delicata squash looked as though it would follow the same path as the summer squashes.  Sadly, though, it got no farther than the perimeter of its mound of soil.  It produced only a few fruit, none of which got any bigger than an inch or so in length.  For us, their name was something of a misnomer.  I wouldn’t even characterize them as weather balloons.