Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Successful Year of Heirloom Gardening

Last Friday, I opened my mail box and was surprised to see my 2013 Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog.  Where did the fall go?  In fact, I am rather embarrassed to see that I have posted nothing to my garden blog in months.  Time really has gotten away from me lately.
I've been mulling over my 2012 garden for awhile, trying to decide what worked, what didn't, and what lessons I want to put into practice for 2013.  Chief among them:
Seed saving is a fun and rewarding practice.  Harvesting lettuce seed was surprisingly easy and well worth the effort.
Seed packages don't lie.  If a lettuce is marketed as bitter in hot weather, believe it.  I won't make that mistake again.  

I am not a container gardener.  No matter how many gardening books claim that container gardening will yield bountiful results, it will just never work for me!
For the most part, I was pleased with the heirlooms that I chose for the 2012 garden.  They survived drought, high heat, and pest infestations just as well as my few non-heirloom varieties.  That being said, there were several clear favorites and a few varieties that I will not be growing again. 
Loved It
Zucchini, Strata D'Italia (Baker Creek) - This zucchini was a great find! The inner child in me wants to jump up and down from excitement, exclaiming that I have found my zucchini and will never stray! However, inexperienced gardener that I am, I am at least aware that one year of success is not the most reliable endorsement. With that in mind, I will grow this zucchini again next year, and hope that it continues to surpass my expectations in Trial Year 2.
Strata D'Italia grew strong and flowered well into August, even after the plants started to slowly die back. What a fascinating site to see a half-dead zucchini vine with vibrant orange flowers, followed by a beautiful squash. This is a big zucchini, with long, white stripes and tender white flesh.  Its flavor is mild and very pleasant. I got a huge harvest from 4 hills - I would estimate that I picked 50 zucchini!   
Pepper, Bull Nose (Seed Savers Exchange) - I love everything about this pepper. Its name. Its size. Its taste. Its origins at Monticello. What a fascinating pepper to go along with a fascinating history. I started these peppers from seed in March, and they grew into strong plants. The peppers transplanted well into the garden, and I did not have a single instance of wilt disease. That being said, there was a point, about mid-July, when I really thought I had a failure on my hands. The first set of fruit was a total loss. Between blossom end rot and an undiagnosed wrinkling condition (maybe drought-induced?), I was really disappointed. But the plants seemed healthy, so I picked off the first set of fruit and tried my best to patiently wait for a second flowering.
By mid-August, I had a prolific second set of fruit, larger in both size and number than the first set. They turned a beautiful shade of red and tasted delicious - sweet and juicy. From 6 plants, I harvested 35 fruit. 
Lettuce, Tennis Ball (Seed Savers Exchange) - What a contrast to my Merveille lettuce! This plant is a cute, compact variety of butter head. Its leaves are light green in color and the taste is mild. The heads were definitely best when harvested young, but my only real trouble was eating salads as fast as the heads were ready to pick!  I attempted seed saving with this variety, and will be trying to coax lettuce plants from my seeds come spring.
Swiss Chard, Bright Lights (Baker Creek) - Swiss Chard is an acquired taste.  My husband grew up eating it, but I knew nothing about it until we met.  In deference to him, I've planted different varieties in our garden the past few years.  Last year, I planted half white-stemmed chard and half bright lights chard.  The bright lights variety was so pretty that I fell in love.  I even forced myself to try it and to my astonishment found that it really improves in flavor after half a dozen tries.
Dill (Baker Creek) - My dill grew tall and strong, providing an endless array of fresh sprigs and dried seeds for winter use.  My only complaint (yes, I was warned but I'm ashamed to admit that I thought I could handle it!) is that I now have dill growing all over my garden and not just in the little patch to which it was relegated.
Tomato, Sungold (Conventional, Local Nursery) - I just don't have the space to seed start tomatoes.  Which is truly a shame since there are so many intriguing heirloom varieties.  I have to say, though, that I do love sungold cherry tomatoes.  They are so sweet and juicy - and really prolific!  I have no idea how many I harvested, as I was completely overwhelmed, but for a solid 6-8 weeks I picked large bowls full every second or third day.  This was from just 3 plants!  
Hated It:
Lettuce, Merveille de Quatre Saisons (Baker Creek) - How could a French lettuce with such a beautiful name be so utterly unpalatable?  Ugh.  I just can't make myself love bitter lettuce.  Admittedly, this lettuce was gorgeous - young, medium green leaves with tips of blushing rose.  Mature plants of a deep, almost burgundy coloring.  They look beautiful in a salad mix, provided you don't actually eat them.  I've learned my lesson here, no matter how gorgeous they look in that seed catalog...taste before beauty!
In truth, if you like bitter lettuce, Merveille may really be a good match for you.  It is hardy and prolific.  Few insects bothered it, and it was ready to pick much earlier than other greens.  Just be prepared for the bitter taste...
Carrots, Chantenay (Baker Creek) - I had such hope for this carrot. Despite 3 years of tilling and amending with compost, our soil is still a work in progress. As a result, I have best luck with carrots that are marketed for clay or poor soil quality.  This carrot immediately caught my eye, since its description mentioned that it grew well in heavy or clay soils. Reviewers had also given it good marks for taste. 
I, on the other hand, was not impressed. First, although they were supposed to be a half-long variety, the description led me to believe they would be the normal width of a carrot, if not a bit larger. A handful of my carrots did meet this description, but most were extremely scrawny. Worse, they succumbed to two infestations - the green tops became the prey of a green worm that looked very similar to the tomato horn worm while the roots were eaten by some sort of larvae infestation. Yuck! About 1/2 my crop was infected with the larvae. The rest, I harvested, brought indoors to the kitchen, and cleaned. I roasted a batch in the oven and they tasted...terrible! They were slightly bitter and almost completely flavorless. 
I may have blamed the lack of success on the weather, but the Parisienne carrots, planted a mere foot away, were not bothered by either pest. 
Potatoes, Desiree (Seed Savers Exchange) - My absolute, all-time favorite potato is the Yukon Gold.  Not only do I love the taste, but my grandfather planted them every year in his garden.  I really don't know why I've strayed from planting them, but I guess I feel like I need to make this quest for the most perfectly wonderful heirloom potato.  For the second year in a row, I forced myself to choose from the many lovely-sounding heirloom potato options offered by Seed Savers Exchange.  And for the second year in a row, I was disappointed.  Desiree potatoes are certainly not prolific.  I only got two or three potatoes from each seed potato planted.  Plus, they were all small and scrawny.  And they tasted like dirt.  I really think that next year I'm going back to Yukon Gold.
Roma Tomatoes (Conventional, Local Nursery) - I planted Romas because I wanted a variety of paste tomato that would ripen all at once for canning.  And yet, they proceeded to ripen one at a time over the course of 2 1/2 months.  This alone was reason to be extremely disappointed.  Worse yet, I really didn't like the flavor or mealy texture. 
Possibly Worth Another Try:
Beet, Bull's Blood (Baker Creek) - At my first picking, I thought I was in love. I roasted a batch and reveled in their sweet, tender flesh. A couple of weeks later, I pulled a few beets out of the bag and peeled them to grate over a salad. And I discovered that my lovely little beets had become bitter and fibrous. Where did I go wrong? Was it the excitement of a beautiful day spent in the garden that initially caused my misplaced love? Or, did they deteriorate that quickly in storage? I'm tempted to think that something went wrong in storage because I just opened my first jar of pickled beets and they were marvelous!  (I also made those the day I harvested my beets.)  
Pepper, Lipstick (Baker Creek) - This is my second year growing the Lipstick Pepper, and I have developed some mixed feelings. On the one hand, the peppers are adorable - cute little pimento-style fruit. And so tasty too -- sweet and tender. Everyone in my family loved these darling little peppers last year and begged me to grow them again. This year's results were disappointing. This is not a prolific pepper, but this year produced even less fruit than last year's plants. The plants were stunted, and the majority of fruit that set never turned from green to red. I'm going to blame the weather, but I'm really wondering if it might be wise to try a different miniature sweet pepper next year.
Carrots, Parisienne (Baker Creek) - This really is a cute little carrot, and it definitely resisted pests better than my other variety.  In fact, judging on these facts alone, the Parisienne would be the ideal choice for heavy soils like mine.  Quite frankly, though, it was a real pain to clean, being a bit too small to make peeling practical and a bit too groovy to rely solely on a good hard scrub.
Beans, Contender (Baker Creek) - What a disappointment.  These beautiful beans were the belle of my garden last year, but this year they were a complete failure.  The plants grew tall and strong, but then were hit by drought and high heat right before flowering.  As a result, very few flowers produced pods.  I harvested no more than 4 or 5 handfuls from 4 rows.
Stay tuned for updates on 2013 garden planning!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Seed Saving - Lettuce and Dill

One of the great benefits of planting heirlooms is that their seeds hold true to type.  If you have the time and inclination, you can save seeds from year to year from your own home garden.  Seed saving is something that I've been wanting to try for awhile, but just somehow never found the time.  This year, I decided to start simple with lettuce and dill. 

This spring, I refrained from harvesting a few Tennis Ball and Merveille de Quatre Saisons lettuce plants and let them flower and produce seed pods.  A few weeks ago, I cut down the seed stalks and let them dry.  Then, I carefully removed the seeds from the pods.  When finished, I packaged the seeds in envelopes. 
I let the heads of dill seed dry in the garden (since there were so many!), and harvested the heads once the seeds were mostly dry.  In retrospect, this was a mistake.  While there were plenty of seeds to risk a few dropping to the ground before harvest, my garden has now been completely taken over by dill.  Next year I will know to be much more vigilant about removing the seeds before they drop! 

I saved a jar of dill seeds and when I was done I was surprised that my hands smelled like pickles!  I didn't realize that dried dill seed was quite so aromatic!  Even after washing my hands, they still smelled!
I found an old shoe box to store the lettuce and dill seed over the winter.  Next spring, I will plant my new stock of seeds in the garden and hope they germinate!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Harvest Monday, September 24, 2012

I just can't get over how many Sun Gold cherry tomatoes I've gotten in the past week!  I picked 3 baskets, and could have picked more if not for an unfortunate run-in with a huge grasshopper.  I finally gave up and ceded the rest of the cherry tomatoes to him.

This week's harvest also included 6 green peppers and 3 zucchini.

Most of my fall seeds have sprouted, and I spent quite a bit of time on Saturday thinning the radishes and greens.  They are looking good!

To see more great harvests, check out Daphne's Dandelions.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Seed Sprouts and Other Garden News

Radishes are truly amazing.  Four days in the ground and they were up and growing like weeds!
The greens emerged slower, but by Sunday I had several little patches of green sprouts.
The beets are just beginning to emerge, and the carrots are as yet MIA.  Hopefully I'll be seeing them later this week.
In other garden news, I pulled up another 1/3 of the squash garden on Sunday.  There are just a few plants left now, all of which had a little zucchini trying to grow.  We'll see what happens there!
I had another huge harvest of cherry tomatoes this weekend, while the large red tomato varieties have largely quit ripening.  I'm tempted to call it, harvest the green tomatoes, and make a batch of green tomato chutney.  However, with so much squash refuse, I really have no room in the garbage can at the moment!
Check of Daphne's Dandelions to see other weekly harvests.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Fall Garden

Here's hoping the fall garden will be a success!

I managed to clear out 1/4 of my garden space for fall planting, put down a fresh layer of compost, and hand tilled to break up the soil. Since space is at a premium this year, I decided to try a different approach. Instead of planting in long rows, I sectioned off the patch in rectangles, then planted several short rows of seeds in each. I'm really looking forward to seeing the results! 

You will notice quite a few repeats from the spring garden --

Parisienne Carrots
Bull's Blood Beets
Tennis Ball Lettuce
Watermelon Radish
Easter Egg Radish

I am trying a few new heirloom varieties --

Parris Island Lettuce (source: Baker Creek. Described as a romaine variety with uniform heads. Leaves are darker on the outside, with lighter creamy green insides. Developed in 1949.)  

Blue Curled Scotch Kale (source: Baker Creek. Described as compact and tender, with blue-green curled leaves.)

Bloomsdale Spinach (source: Baker Creek. Described as glossy deep green, with delicious leaves. Developed in 1925.)

That's quite a bit for a little space, but since I'm really the only one in the family who likes greens, I just planted a few spinach, kale, and lettuces. That gave me a lot more room for carrots, beets, and radishes. There's really nothing to see at the moment, but hopefully in the next week to ten days I will have lots of sprouts!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Harvest Monday, 9/10/2012

What a beautiful weekend!  We had two glorious days of 70-degree weather, and I headed out to the garden to finally plant those fall seeds!

My big tomatoes have pretty much stopped ripening, but I am still getting cherry tomatoes.

I also found 3 more zucchini among the dying vines.  I pulled several more vines to make room for the fall garden.

Sadly, about half of my carrots were buggy.  I decided to pull them all out to prevent the bugs from spreading further down the rows and damaging the remaining carrots.  It seemed that the Chantenay carrots were much more effected than the Parisienne.

My red peppers are winding down, but I have several left on the vines trying to ripen.  I picked two this week that were half green, half red.

Stay tuned later this week for more news on the fall garden!

Check out Daphne's Dandelions for more great harvests.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Harvest Monday, 9/3/2012

So it's Labor Day; September has begun, and I can hardly believe summer went by so quickly!

The bugs have really taken over my garden in the last couple of weeks!  Squash bugs are everywhere, and I squished 8 tomato worms on Saturday that had infested the carrot patch!

The tomato harvest was pretty minimal this week.  Even though we had a week of nice hot weather, the green tomatoes don't seem to be ripening as fast as they did in early August.  I did get a few nice big tomatoes and a couple handfuls of cherry tomatoes.
A couple of my zucchini plants finally died, but I've still got a few babies coming on the plants that are left.  This week, though, I thankfully only harvested one full grown zucchini.
I made a beef roast on Saturday and needed some carrots, so I picked about 1/4 of my patch.  Most of them are really beautiful, but I did find several that were buggy.
To see more great harvests, check out Daphne's Dandelions.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Harvest Monday, 8/27/2012

On Thursday night, I was in complete shock.  While out in the garden, I noticed the familiar striped green shape of zucchini.  I knew the plants were still trying to flower a little, but I had no idea that any had set fruit big enough to be picked.  I did a little investigating and found 6 big zucchini and one just about ready to be picked!  To think last week I was lamenting what to do with all that zucchini!  Now with 7 more, I really have a dilemma!

My tomatoes have not been ripening well this past 2 weeks, as we hit a big of a cool-down.  The weather has been beautiful for evenings in the garden, but unfortunately my tomatoes haven't appreciated it.  The cherry tomatoes didn't seem to mind, though, and I picked several baskets of them this week.  I did pick 4 more red peppers, though, and they were delicious!

I haven't had a chance to start my fall garden yet, but I have cleared a patch where it will go.  I'm hoping to get to work during the evenings this week, or on Saturday at the latest. 

To see more great harvests, check out Daphne's Dandelions.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Zucchini Mozzarella Rounds

Like many of you, I'm having mixed feelings about zucchini right now.  It's been such a bad year in the garden that I am grateful for every crop that has done well.  However, with a freezer full of shredded and diced zucchini for breads and soups, those 8 zucchini sitting on my counter have lost some of their charm.  Ok, almost all of their charm.  We've had zucchini casserole, zucchini sticks, zucchini quesadillas, ziti, steamed zucchini, fried zucchini, zucchini bread, zucchini cake...you get the idea.  I've run out of ways to make zucchini exciting.

Over the weekend, I came across this new, and simple, recipe for zucchini mozzarella rounds.  They were fast, easy, and very tasty.

Zucchini Mozzarella Rounds

1 large zucchini, cut into 1/4 inch rounds
1 c. mozzarella cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Arrange zucchini in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake 10 minutes, turning them once at 5 minutes.  Remove zucchini from oven and sprinkle with mozzarella cheese.  Place baking sheet under the broiler and broil approximately 2-3 minutes, or until the cheese begins to brown and bubble.  Remove and enjoy!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Harvest Monday, 8/20/2012

Peppers and tomatoes have been my big stars this week.  I harvested 6 red bell peppers, 1 green pepper, and another 20 tomatoes.

Sadly, my pineapple tomatoes have not been doing well the past couple of weeks and I had to pull them up this weekend.

My sungold cherry tomatoes have had another burst of energy, and a whole new set has ripened.  I froze another 2 bags for use in soups this winter.

We've had a very rainy couple of weeks, which has been great for the garden except that it has encouraged bug breeding.  Suddenly the garden is full of them!  I've never seen squash bugs leave the squash patch, but this week I found one eating a tomato!  They've also wreaked havoc on the Swiss Chard, but luckily I've already filled my freezer with enough to last thru the winter.  I did pick a nice bunch for fresh eating, and threw out about twice as much that was too damaged to bother with.

I also harvested 2 more zucchini.  I now have quite a bit laying on the counter, as I haven't had a chance to do much with them in the last couple of weeks.  Good thing zucchini lasts a while!

To see more great harvests, check out Daphne's Dandelions.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Canning Adventure: Tomato Jam

I went out to the garden mid-week and was surprised to find a ton of ripe tomatoes!  I hadn't expected another big ripening until this weekend! 

I recently came across a recipe for Tomato Jam and have been thinking about nothing else since then, so I decided to whip up a batch.  The recipe, from Food in Jars, called for some interesting ingredients including fresh ginger, lime juice, and red pepper flakes.  The resulting jam is a little sweet, a little spicy, and a little tangy.  It will taste great over a soft cheese with crackers!

About 8 pounds of tomatoes yielded 3 pints with about a cup and a half left over to try.  Not terribly impressive yields, but the tomatoes did need to cook down a lot!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Harvest Monday, 8/13/2012

The cherry tomatoes have finally peaked.  As much as I love the, I have to say that I was relieved when this week's total harvest was only a little over a pint. Abundant harvests of cherry tomatoes have been replaced by Roma, Mortgage Lifter, and Rutgers.  They have all finally started to ripen in great numbers and I was able to can 8 pints.

As you can see in the photo above, hiding among the tomatoes, I also harvested 4 more zucchini this week.  The zucchini patch is definitely on its way out, but it looks like I will get a few more zucchini this season.

My red peppers are finally starting to ripen and I harvested 7 this week!  I don't have a photo of all 7, but these are the larger ones.
On Saturday, I dug up my potato plants.  I got a pretty nice harvest, although not as many potatoes per plant as past years.

To see more great harvests, check out Daphne's Dandelions.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Canning Tomatoes

Finally!  Lots of tomatoes ripened this week and I was able to make a nice batch of hot-packed canned tomatoes. 

The first time I ever canned tomatoes I think I spent almost a day getting everything prepped, cut, cooked, and then canned.  I must be getting speedier with practice because I managed to get 8 pints canned in about 2.5 hours!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Harvest Monday, 8/6/2012

It was another week of travel, and little time to spend in the garden.  I came home to mountains of ripe Sungold cherry tomatoes -- so many that I actually froze some for the first time ever.  I also had a handful of Roma tomatoes ripen, although I am very disappointed with them.  As a determinate variety, I expected them to ripen all at once, but that sure hasn't been the case.    

In other tomato news, someone is eating holes in my larger tomato varieties.  I had to throw several away because they were so bad.

My zucchini plants have set more flowers, and this week I harvested 3 more zucchini.  (2 are pictured below).

And finally, I have another cucumber.  I think that makes a season total of 3!

To see more Harvest Monday posts, check out Daphne's Dandelions.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Pickled Beets

Over the weekend, I harvested all of the beets in my garden.  I had promised my dad a jar of pickled beets, so I decided to can a batch on Saturday.  I've never made pickled beets before, but I've done tomatoes, jam, and applesauce.  I figured that pickling would be the next logical step in my canning education.   

It was quite an adventure and I'm not at all happy with my Ball canning book at the moment.  The pickled beet recipe could use a serious update.  Here's what happened -- I was doing so well.  I selected uniform-sized beets, boiled them according to the directions, then slipped off their skins and quartered them.  I made my pickling liquid and added the beets once it came to a boil.  I got my jars ready and was all set up.  And then I filled my first jar with beet slices up to the 1/2 inch mark and attempted to fill in the gaps with the pickling liquid.  By the time I had added enough liquid to cover the beets up to the 1/2 inch mark, I was out of liquid -- and 5 jars of beets yet to go!  I was so mad.  I had to start over.  I tripled the amount of pickling liquid and barely had enough for the rest of my jars.  Which, by the way, made 5 jars not 6 as the recipe indicated.

I am pleased with the final product, and all of my jars did seal nicely.  But really, I would expect much better accuracy from a Ball recipe.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Harvest Monday, 7/30/2012

It was another big week for cherry tomatoes.  Almost every day, I found more ripe ones to pick.

Not as many big tomatoes ripened this week, but it looks like several of the Roma tomatoes will ripen in the next few days. I did get a few nice Pineapple tomatoes and a couple of large Rutgers, though.

On Saturday, I pulled all of the beets and onions.  The onions are drying on the patio.  I made a batch of pickled beets and the rest are sitting in the pantry.

There's always more Swiss Chard and this week was no exception.  I froze 6 bags for use this winter.

The garden is looking pretty barren with the bean patch empty, and now the beets and onions gone.  I had planned to start a fall garden in the next few weeks, but with the high heat and drought, I'm not so sure that's a good idea.  Any ideas for successful seed starting under these conditions, or would I be better off ditching the plans for this year's fall garden?

That's all of the harvest for this week.  To check out more great harvests, visit Daphne's Dandelions.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Harvest Monday, July 23, 2012

It was a hot, but rainy week (yay rain!).  After 3 soaking rains mid-week, the garden popped back to life with new vigor.  I've all but given up on my container plantings, but everything in the ground is looking good!

This week, I had quite a varied harvest.  On Monday, I picked another big basket of Chard. 

On Wednesday while out surveying the pepper patch, I found the perfect pepper.  This is the Lipstick variety, small and thin, but deliciously sweet.

It was a big week for tomatoes.  In fact, I got so many tomatoes this week that I actually canned a small batch of 4 pints on Saturday. These are some of the larger varieties - Rutgers, Mortgage Lifter, and a few Bloody Butcher.

I also picked another basket of cherry tomatoes. 

On Saturday, I picked another small handful of cherry tomatoes, along with a few larger tomatoes and 2 peppers.

The Strata d'Italia zucchini are still producing and I found 2 more hidden in the middle of the patch.

These are the first beets I've harvested this season.  Judging by their size, I think the whole patch is ready to be picked.  But I have no plan yet, so I just picked a few.  What is your favorite method of keeping beets?

To see more great harvests, check out Daphne's Dandelions