Tuesday, January 31, 2006

First-Timer's Club for 2006

Many of us garden because we love growing things, especially improbable things. And many of us garden to excess because we are enthusiastic, or maybe a bit bonkers. I bought how many kinds of heirloom tomatoes where I can really only grow 5 - 7 tomato plants? You know. That kind of thing. But every year, many of us try to add something different or new to the garden. I call it "joining the first-timer's club".

Often there is a book to blame for a sudden burst of enthusiasm, and that was definitely the case for me. I picked up a used copy of Rosalind Creasy's "The Edible Asian Garden" at Powell's on our fall trip to Portland. After sitting down and reading it, I was buzzing with ideas. I planned on adding everything from amaranth to tsat-tsoi to my garden. Then I got realistic about what I could really grow, and what we'd be likely to actually eat and use. But even after the realism, there were some things that made the cut. Woo-hoo!

Eggplant, long Japanese type

I've always had a fondness for eggplant, especially eggplant parmesan. My hubby has claimed great loathing for eggplant, though, so I haven't tried growing any-- I can satisfy my occasional eggplant cravings with dinner out or a trip to the store. However, Mike recently encountered YuShiang Eggplant (garlic eggplant in brown sauce) and tried some. Aha. He says the long Asian types of eggplant are 'sweeter' and 'milder' than the giant purple Barney Eggs style, and that he would like to try cooking with it at home. So I am going to be growing eggplant for the first time. It's supposedly very much like tomatoes or peppers to grow, so that shouldn't be too difficult. Famous last words!

Daikon, Japanese radish

Ditto for growing daikon, basically a very long radish. I'm going to try to get a short variety, since I have only about a foot of raised bed or less before "Welcome to the World of Clay". I'm encouraged by how soft the soil got in the beds this year, but there are, alas, limits. The daikon I see in the local Ranch 99 and similar is vast and huge, and I hope represents some giant variety rather than the norm. I found a 'Minowase' variety that is supposed to get approximately 2 feet in length and 3 inches in diameter, and that sounds good to me. Some of the daikon I see in the markets is double that size!

One reason in particular that I'd like to grow daikon is that I love 'oshinko' type Japanese pickled daikon, the bright yellow variety. A problem for me, a diabetic, is that it's made with sugar or corn syrup. I had pretty good luck this year making bread-n-butter pickles with sucralose (splenda), and would like to try making my own oshinko with it. Apparently the way it's made involves baking at low temperature for many hours. Those experiments will be the topic of another column. Sure, I could just go out and buy some daikon and see how it works, but this way I get to grow a new plant! :-)

Chinese Long Bean (Asparagus Bean)

I'm thinking Chinese Long Bean will be my 'new new thing' this year. OK, it's just a bean, but I'm kind of intimidated just thinking about it! I'm planning to try a deep red variant offered by Baker Creek. Never having grown Chinese Long Bean before, I set out looking for info. So far I've found a couple of very valuable facts-- first, they do fine on a 6-foot trellis, although they may go up and then wind downward again. Second, someone on a garden forum elsewhere said that they need a cowpea type inoculant instead of a normal bean type.

Now I've not used inoculants on my peas or beans thus far, but had considered doing so this year. The scoop is that legumes can harbor nitrogen-fixing bacteria in root nodules, thus enriching the soil where they grow. The catch is that they may not do so by default. If the bacteria are present already in your soil, they can colonize. If not, like sourdough or yogurt, you need to use a starter to get your plants going with their little symbiotic buddies.

So, what are you planning to grow this year that you've never grown before, and that you generally think will be a really cool challenge?

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Last 2005 Peppers

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I covered some of my pepper plants to extend their season. Over the weekend we cleared out that section of the garden and bid a thankful farewell to those plants. It's always tough pulling up plants!

Here is the third, and final batch of peppers; the ones ripening in the earlier blog post are the second batch. I'm truly astonished that we had flowering and fruit set on these plants in mid to late December, but the unseasonably warm weather and large, established plants are probably the key factors. We also have a kit greenhouse on the patio, right in front of the pepper bed, which probably provides some warmth as it cools slowly in the evening, and also blocks the cold north breezes of our winter storms.

The Marconi Gold peppers were about 20% smaller than the ones that ripened during their proper, warmer season, but they are still sweet and good. The Tulip Tree lipstick peppers stayed green, didn't like the cold at all. The Tequila Sunrise was very hardy, and while the fruits weren't very sweet, they still had great pepper flavor. I think Tequila Sunrise might do well as a container plant to bring into a greenhouse or onto a sunny porch in shorter-season areas. It was a nice compact plant, and quite lovely with the yellow-gold peppers.

My garden 'vacation' is coming to a close. The 'keep your fingers crossed' peas planted in December are now a bit over a foot tall, and going strong. I have another batch soaking which needs to go in the ground today or tomorrow, and also have some ornamental fragrant sweet peas soaking as well. For obvious reasons, they'll be planted far from each other! I'm kicking myself for not getting more beets and radishes in, since the handful I have in now are coming along. Maybe this weekend?

Meanwhile the violas and dianthus that I put in back in November are happy, if enduring a bit of snail damage. The violas continue to bloom cheerfully, and now the long spikes of the blue irises are rising, and the thick stubby points of the daffodils recently emerged. Time to do some flashlight patrols for snails on warm nights, and maybe start putting out the saucers of beer!

All my east coast and mid-state gardener readers, don't despair. Spring is coming to you too! And all the seed catalogs are now arriving, making it a perfect time to curl up on the couch with a cat and a cup of tea and a clipboard. Sometimes I think planning the garden is as much fun as growing it, never mind that it never seems to work out as planned.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Season of the Volunteers

Pinching lettuce seeds from the dried flower umbels, Batavian Black Nevada lettuce

This is the time of year when you find out just how many seeds you forgot to save, or which seeds have scattered hither, thither, and yon. I saved lettuce, nasturtium, and coriander (cilantro) seed, but I might not have bothered-- dozens of nasturtiums and hundreds of cilantro plants are coming up all over the paths between the new garden beds. Volunteer lettuce lurks by the grapevine where I let the Batavian Black Nevada go to seed. Would that I'd actually gotten out there and planted radishes, carrots, and beets again, a second sowing, during the winter holidays. Ditto for peas, as the peas I sprouted and planted sometime after Thanksgiving are now a foot-plus tall, waving a few inches over the little bit of wire fence scrap I set out for them. I took a section of coated-wire fencing and a pair of stakes out today on my way to work, and gave them another few feet to climb-- should keep them happy!

Today's picture shows how to harvest lettuce seeds from a bolted lettuce that you've let dry out. Did you know that lettuce seeds travel on tiny bits of fluff, like dandelion seeds? I had thought that my dried lettuce flowers, having been rained on a few times and been out in bad weather, would have no seeds left. However I hadn't realized that the plant was sheltered from the wind by the neighbor's utility shed, and that being so close to their driveway seemed to keep the birds away from it. So when I started pinching little flower umbels over a white plate, I had lots and lots of seed to reward my efforts. If your lettuce has tan or light cream colored seeds, you might find a sheet of colored construction paper, or a colored plate, more helpful.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Extending the Pepper Season

Floating row cover on a PVC frame keeps Marconi Gold and Tequila Sunrise peppers ripening.

Sometime in mid November, I realized the peppers were getting way too cold. Maybe it was earlier than that. I had a crop of Marconi Gold ripening, sweet italian frying peppers that I adore but that didn't really do well until the late summer. I had a little PVC frame from a laundry bag holder that didn't really work for us, so I took that, some cable ties, and some floating row cover and made a little 3/4 shelter, extending some extra floating row fabric out to the small tomato cage supporting the nearby Big Jim pepper and securing it with a cable tie.

Not only did I harvest the Marconi peppers, but the mini-greenhouse effect of the row cover, even open on one side, persuaded all 5 plants under it to flower again and set fruit. From one small investment in a few minute's time and care, we reaped:

  • a handful of green 'mystery peppers' (some kind of sweet bell, about 3 inches round)
  • a handful of lipstick sized and shaped Tequila Sunrise orange and Tulip Tree red sweet peppers
  • in two batches, about 8 large Marconi Gold peppers, 8 - 12 inches in length and 2 - 3 inches wide
  • one more batch of Big Jim Numex peppers, which didn't color up much but were still tasty and had quite a kick to them

So if you're thinking, gee, should I take the time to try extending the season of this plant, even if I don't have the resources to do something fancy, my answer is YES, absolutely!

BTW, I recycle the floating row cover if it doesn't get too ripped up-- it washes clean of mud, and smaller bits can be used to make individual mini-hoops over wire mesh to give seedlings a better start. I fold it up and store it in an unused pot on my garden shelf outside, making sure it's out of the sunlight. The stuff is quite UV-stable, but why waste that property when it's not deployed over plants?