Monday, February 11, 2008

Gardening Book Review #4: The Kitchen Garden

The Kitchen Garden: A Passionate Gardener’s Comprehensive Guide to Growing Good Things to Eat by Sylvia Thompson*

This is one of the best all-around gardening books I’ve ever read. Organized encyclopedia-style, with entries for each category of vegetable, it supplements the usual information about how to grow the plants with fascinating descriptions of unusual and tasty varieties as well as anecdotes from the author’s own gardening experience. Although Thompson’s climate zone (in southern California) is far different from mine, her scope is not restricted to her own region but includes pointers for those in other zones. There’s also a section in the back of the book with practical information about gardening in general, with charts and advice on miscellaneous subjects such as growing plants indoors under lights.

Her philosophy about which kinds of plants to grow is attractive, as well: She favors varieties that have great flavor in the kitchen, and she is committed to diversity. Part of her philosophy about vegetable diversity is rooted in the idea that maintaining a wide variety of edibles helps ensure that our food sources will be resistant to disease and other blights, but part of it, too, comes from her acknowledgment of the sheer fun of growing things that taste or look special.

She tells us how peppers are categorized according to shape, then explains how climate affects their flavor. In a long section on beans, she devotes space to dried, fresh, and shelly (fresh-shelled) beans and how to cultivate beans of many types. She isn’t afraid to make recommendations and to name varieties (such as the Kentucky Blue pole bean that I grew last year) that fellow gardeners have found disappointing in flavor or yield. Every so often, in one or another of the entries, she throws in some uncommon bits of information that can be tremendously helpful, such as her idea of germinating carrot seeds in a water bath before planting them or an explanation of how phosphorus levels in the soil affect the sharpness of onions.

This book lends itself particularly well to winter reading, because it allows the gardener to sit down with a favorite catalog and compare the varieties offered with Thompson’s commentary. This is the time for making decisions, and it’s important to know what kinds of varieties are suited to one’s climate or style of gardening. Thompson introduces her readers to the pleasures of growing produce that is fresher, more interesting, and better tasting than they would commonly find at the supermarket—which is a big part of what makes home gardening fulfilling.

* A companion volume called The Kitchen Garden Cookbook is also available.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Gardening Book Review #3: Advanced Home Gardening

Advanced Home Gardening: Cutting-Edge Growing Techniques for Gardeners by Miranda Smith (Creative Homeowner series)

All the down-and-dirty, basic techniques for gardening are covered in this book. The information is broken down into color-coded chapters, making it easy to get around and find what you need. For a beginning gardener or for someone who just wants an all-purpose manual, this is a highly useful reference. A substantial chapter on vegetables is sandwiched between other chapters covering flowers, herbs, fruit trees, shrubs, and the like. It’s a smorgasbord of everything a home gardener needs.

The really good stuff, from the vegetable gardener’s point of view, is in the first two chapters, which tell you about layout, digging, soil, cover crops, and how to buy, germinate, propagate, and tend plants. There are maps of heat and hardiness zones, a list of cover crops and green manures that tells you when to plant them and when to turn them under, and some very nice how-to illustrations. The clear, attractive illustration of the steps involved in propagating cuttings is one instance of how the book makes it easy to follow the processes it describes.

I was underwhelmed, at first, by the section on vegetable gardens. When I first looked at this book, I had a specific question in mind—probably about my nemesis, the squash vine borer. But because this manual is so broad in scope, its depth is limited. Considering the amount of information it must impart about vegetable gardening in a single chapter, its reach is quite impressive. It offers good advice on principles of companion planting and succession planting, a chard of how much to plant of certain vegetables (based on your needs), illustrations of crop rotation plans, and a fairly detailed description of how to plant and care for your vegetables.

The directory section, containing descriptions of particular vegetables, is somewhat less useful, because it has room for only so much information about each plant. If you want to seek out information about particular varieties (for instance, about techniques for growing sweet onions), you’ll have to seek it elsewhere. Altogether, though, this is one of the better, more comprehensive gardening books I’ve seen, and it’s a valuable addition to the shelf, particularly if you’re interested in growing flowers and fruit alongside your zucchini and beans.


Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Gardening Book Review #2: New Kitchen Garden

New Kitchen Garden by Adam Caplin (photography by Caroline Hughes)

The premise of this book—that you can grow vegetables among your ornamental plants—makes for lovely pictures. As a result, paging through it is a delight, though the book is of little use as a reference. The text, though appearing in copious swaths alongside the photographs, provides a few neat insights and tips on organic gardening, but the small, sans-serif font makes it hard to read, and the information isn’t organized in a very user-friendly fashion. This is strictly coffee-table territory, where words exist mainly as anchors for pictures.

That said, the pictures themselves, and occasionally the words, give forth abundant ideas for what one might accomplish in a mixed flower and vegetable garden. Anchored to a tall pole, runner beans with gorgeous, orange-red blossoms rise high above the ferns, demonstrating how a sun-loving plant can sometimes thrive with its roots anchored in a shady spot. Fennel waves its feathery fronds beside a drift of brilliant poppies. Zucchini leaves loom large beside a starry sea holly.

For the experienced gardener, some of the suggestions on planting out seedlings and descriptions of individual vegetables may be of some use, or at least provide amusement. Looking through the section on organic gardening is like comparing notes with a fellow gardener across the fence (keeping in mind that your neighbor is presenting his experiences in the best possible light, entirely free of blemishes).

Some of the information is basic (veggies need nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to grow; crop rotation is important; tomatoes are diverse in variety). But some of it is more particular to the mixed decorative and culinary garden (intensive planting can make small infections into potentially larger problems; eggplant works well in gardens with grays, blues, and purples; you can prevent slugs from entering plant pots by rubbing petroleum jelly on the outer rim). This is the type of book that helps you generate ideas, even if it will solve few, if any, of your pre-existing problems.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

2007 Vegetable Roundup

A comprehensive list of the 20 varieties of vegetables I planted this year. A key to seed producers, identified by initials after the plant variety name, follows the list.

Beans—Kentucky Blue (Pole) (FM)
Climbed up their poles admirably, produced well from late summer to frost. Flavor quite good, though not exceptional. Recommended.

Cantaloupe—Hearts of Gold (FMO)
Produced about 4-5 viable melons per plant; prone to splitting after a long rain (when ripe). Hands-down, the best melon I’ve ever tasted. Sweet flavor from center all the way to the skin; no discernible rind. Stores for about a week, so eat ’em while they’re fresh. Very highly recommended.

Chard, Swiss—Large Ribbed Dark Green (FM)
A survivor from spring until goodness knows when. In mid-December, it’s still hanging on, and is still quite tasty. Produces big, chewy leaves in summer. The seed company claims this variety tastes just like spinach. It doesn’t. You have to cook it considerably longer, and it’s more bitter and less sweet than spinach. Overall, though, a rewarding, strong, productive plant. Highly recommended.

Cucumber—Tendergreen (Burpless) (FM)
Vigorous vines, highly productive in mid- to late summer. Cucumbers have big seeds and thick skin, but their flesh is sweet, crisp, and juicy. I prefer the more slender, thinner-skinned, less seedy Oriental cucumbers, but if you’re a fan of the big, American-style ones, this is a good pick. Recommended.

Eggplant—Early Long Purple (FMO)
This year’s crop failed entirely, but that’s probably due to infertile soil in the flowerbed in which they were planted. Plants from the same seed packet did fine last year; produced plenty of long, slender eggplant, great for stir-frying with other vegetables. Recommended, as long as you’re ready with the fertilizer bag or have good soil.

Lettuce—Bibb (or Limestone) (FM)
Unbelievable keeping quality in a hot, dry summer, when kept well watered and shaded by other plants (in this case, tomatoes). Leaves were still tender and relatively sweet through July (although plants became quite tall); didn’t bolt until August. Did not form heads, possibly because plants were crowded together in rows. Put in second planting too late in the season, but though plants are only a few inches high, they’re still alive in mid-December. Very highly recommended.

Pea—Dwarf Gray Sugar (BFC)
Planted too late in both spring and fall; spring seedlings were eaten by rabbits, while fall plants never bloomed, although they still survive as of mid-December. Produced a total of two pods. Not sure.

Pepper—Anaheim Chili (FM)
Last year, I had more peppers than I could handle; this year’s batch, grown from the same seed packet, was far less productive, most likely because of infertile soil in the flowerbed. All the same, this is a good buy. The peppers have just enough zing to prove that they are, indeed, chilies, and their elongated but not-too-thin shape makes them versatile; they can be stuffed, chopped, or roasted. Recommended.

Pepper—Aurora (SSE)
Big producer; extremely attractive fruit and flowers. The tiny peppers look like small Christmas lights, emerging purple, then turning bright yellow, orange, and red. Peppers were quite hot; when they were split and washed in the kitchen, everyone within a five-foot radius started to sneeze and cough. One or two peppers is enough to spice up an entire dish, though they add little flavor other than their heat. Highly recommended.

Onion—Walla Walla (FM)
Not the big, sweet onions I expected; I wonder if the seeds in my packet were the wrong variety, as these onions were perfectly round and had plenty of kick (real weepers). As storage onions, they were fine, though no more flavorful than the supermarket variety. Will try again with another packet, perhaps purchased from another company. Not sure.

Radish—Cherry Belle (FM)
These were planted alongside the spinach and lettuce as a trap crop, and served their purpose well. Flavor was sharp and very slightly sweet. Extremely poor keeping quality. Crisp when pulled, but roots wilt within hours of picking. Not recommended.

Spinach—Bloomsdale, Long Standing (FM)
Complete failure, two years running. Seedlings came up but did not survive past two-leaf stage. Could be my fault, but a plant that needs to be pampered that much is hardly worth the effort. Not recommended.

Squash—Burgess Buttercup (FM)
Beautiful, extremely vigorous vines latch onto everything in sight and grow six inches per night in midsummer. Vines died just after midsummer after invasion by squash vine borers. Produced a total of three immature fruits from four vines. Previous year’s plants were killed in early summer by squash bugs and their nymphs. If you plant these in Virginia, prepare to do battle. Not recommended (unless you have a greenhouse and are prepared to pollinate the flowers by hand), but will try again anyway.

Tomato—Early Girl Hybrid (FM)
Plenty of round, cue-ball-sized fruit that redden fairly early in the game. Sweet flavor, firm texture. Sliced tomatoes are great in sandwiches. Highly recommended.

Tomato—Green Zebra (SSE)
These ones put on their growth spurt late, but soon caught up with the other tomato plants. Not a huge producer. When ripe, the fruit are yellow with green stripes. Very pretty and a nice conversation piece, but not nearly as sweet as the reds. Recommended.

Tomato—Roma VFN (FM)
Big producer. All the oblong Italian-style tomatoes you can handle. Fruit often drops to the ground before it’s ripe, but there are so many others on the vine that it doesn’t matter. Great for salsas; also okay for sauce. I eat them in omelets because they’re more fleshy and less juicy than some of the other varieties, and they taste good when cooked. Highly recommended.

Tomato—Sweet Pea Currant (SSE)
These are the cutest, tiniest tomatoes you will ever see, no larger than a good-sized pea. But because of their size, they’re hell to pick. Twenty minutes of picking yields a hundred or so tomatoes, which adds up to about a handful. Sweet flavor, but too much skin. Ambivalent.

Tomato—Top Sirloin Hybrid (FM)
Big, juicy, sweet beefsteak-type tomatoes that take a long time to ripen but are well worth the wait. Though large, these ones don’t seem as prone to cracking as the Brandywines. Highly recommended.

Watermelon—Crimson Sweet (FM)
World’s sweetest watermelon—almost too sugary. Crisp, red flesh, relatively small seeds. Low yield (one melon per plant), probably because they were grown in the infertile soil of the flowerbed. Very highly recommended.

Watermelon—Moon and Stars (FMO)
These are supposed to have a dark green rind with numerous small yellow spots (the stars) and one big yellow spot (the moon). Mine had the stars, but no moon. They ripened late in the season. Low yield, possibly because of infertile soil. Pale pink flesh, big seeds, somewhat saccharine flavor. Not recommended.

Source Key:
BFC—Burpee Fordhook Collection
FMO—Ferry-Morse Organic
SSE—Seed Savers Exchange

Monday, December 17, 2007

Gardening Book Review #1: The $64 Tomato

Now that the growing season is long over, I have taken to reading and reviewing gardening books. The best of these books remind hibernating gardeners why we take an interest in growing our own food. The others, alas, are a mixed bunch. Some are worth keeping, despite their flaws; others are fit material for compost. The first book to be reviewed is one of those slightly flawed narratives, intermittently enjoyable despite its bruises.

The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden by William Alexander

William Alexander is a gardener with more than 25 years of experience, and the portion of that experience that is communicated in this book is interesting, if not always particularly insightful. But he digresses. He digresses about his landscaper’s blond hair and pretty teeth, about his car accident on the way to the tree nursery, and about the renovation of his tumbledown house. He writes too much about his sex life. In this context, his comments about sex, sparse though they may be, are uniformly cringe-inducing. In essence, the book ends up being more about the author's psychology than about the garden itself.

That’s too bad, because when he does dig into his actual gardening experiences, he turns up some useful information and entertaining anecdotes. He goes to war with the local animals with mixed success, and ends up with ever higher voltage in the electric fence surrounding his prized vegetables and fruit trees. As the penultimate chapter shows in fascinating detail, he spends astronomical amounts of money on supplies, labor, and seed, something to which any gardener who has ever gone over budget will easily relate. He tries and fails to produce apples without using pesticides. At the end of each growing season, he and his wife do their best to cook and preserve the burgeoning harvest.

There is much in this book for the backyard gardener to contemplate, but this book doesn’t quite live up to the drama of its extra-long subtitle. The “existential crisis” comes after the author, at age 50, suffers a herniated disc in his spine and begins to reconsider his relationship to a garden that has become part of his identity. Such consequences might reasonably be expected after so many years spent hoeing and shoveling a plot about 2,000 square feet in area. That’s almost 20 times the space in my garden. Alas, the “quest for the perfect garden” doesn’t quite pan out, either. Alexander is not seeking the perfect garden; he’s just trying to keep up with the extremely large, pretty good garden that he already has. If he had kept a more intense focus on writing about those efforts, this would have come nearer to being the perfect gardening book.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

When the Frost Is on the Punkin, Maybe It’s Time to Give Up

I might as well admit it: the season is over. An evening of temperatures in the low 40s a few weeks ago claimed most of the plants that were still growing, and I had to work hard to harvest all the tomatoes and pull up the tomato plants. I was lucky, for the frost that had blackened every plant and shrunken its leaves left the fruit intact. Only one small, green tomato, sticking up on a branch above all the rest, was frozen.

About six gallons of mostly green tomatoes came indoors with me. I placed them in shallow bowls and platters on the dining table, and they have been ripening a few at a time, prolonging the illusion of summer. These ripened “greenies” still have that home-grown freshness and savor. The red ones are still sweet, the green-and-yellows still tangy. The texture is not as firm as it was (moisture loss, I guess), but altogether they are better than I would have predicted.

The last two cantaloupe plants put in a fair effort at producing a new set of fruit, but ultimately failed. Clinging to the withered vines were some half-dozen tennis-ball-sized muskmelons. It was fun to throw the unripe melons across the yard in the general direction of the trash can, but it was also sad to contemplate the unrealized potential they represented. Their predecessors were truly the best muskmelons I had ever had the joy of devouring, tender of flesh and full of honey-like sweetness.

The snap beans grew until the frost, as well, but now they are frail skeletons clinging wearily to their posts. I’ve left them there because the snow peas, which are still alive, have been using them as a trellis. Some kind of rodent is eating the leaves of the pea plants. I doubt they will manage to produce a crop before they are either eaten to the ground or blistered by freezing rain.

Underneath the trellis, my lettuce seedlings have hung on, but I fear that they will freeze soon, too, unless I can find some suitable pots to transplant them into. I don’t know whether lettuce will grow well inside, but it’s worth trying. I transplanted the three basil plants that survived the frost (two cinnamon basil—very special and zingy—and one ordinary basil), and so far, they seem to be quite happy in their sunny window.

The entire row of Swiss chard, stalwart in cold as in extreme heat, endures, crisp, green, and thick-leaved, although the leaves are not growing as fast or large as they did in summer. I have grown to enjoy Swiss chard, and have found that it breaks down pleasantly in soups. It also makes a good stir-fry, as long as there’s something in the stir-fry that is flavorful enough to cut the leaves’ natural bitterness. Best of all, though, is sukiyaki with Swiss chard in it. Somehow, the broth of soy sauce, sake, and sugar brings out all the most pleasant qualities of this vegetable. It softens, but doesn’t get mushy, and its strong flavor subsides just to the point where it adds interest. This makes it superior to the usual Napa cabbage or bok choy.

At any rate, I’m glad to have something still growing out there besides my perennial herbs. I’ve contemplated planting onions, but it’s probably too late, and they would interfere with the rotation I’ve planned for next year. It’s time to plant a cover crop of some sort (more on that later), then sit back, drink some tea, and read—about gardening, naturally. After all, there's no better time than fall and winter to fantasize about what the next summer may bring. Only in the cold season can the gardener unleash her imagination without bowing to practical realities and the day-to-day drudgery involved in Making It So.

Coming up: cover crops, herbs, the fall vegetable roundup (what worked and what didn’t), book reviews, and plans for next year (of course!).

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Friday, October 5, 2007

Watermelons: Moon and Stars and a Supernova

In case you were wondering what happens to a watermelon deferred, I have an answer for you: It explodes. Happily, this watermelon was not one of my own precious few but a large, torpedo-shaped object I had bought from a Pennsylvania farm whose melons have pleased me in the past. I wanted to compare its flavor to those of the watermelons I grew in the garden, but I never had the chance.

I left it on the kitchen counter for nearly a week, having no extra room in the refrigerator for its bulk. This may have been ill-advised, but I have done such things before. I left my first Moon and Stars watermelon out there for about ten days before cutting into the thing, and it looked and tasted just fine, as firm as ever, though not nearly as sugary as my Crimson Sweets. Although the Moon and Stars melon was on the small side (around ten pounds, the size of a small bowling ball), its seeds were larger than any others I had seen before. Around the seeds, an air pocket had formed, dividing the inner and outer parts of the pale-pink flesh. To tell the truth, it tasted somewhat saccharine: mildly sweet at the outset, and with a lingering aftertaste.

At any rate, this farm watermelon I brought home promised at least a week of good eating, and I was looking forward to making the first chop into its thick, strong rind and hearing the glacial crack of ripe watermelon innards cleanly splitting apart. Then, sometime last night, the unthinkable happened: a gushing fountain of liquid exploded from inside the great vessel, engulfing the countertop and a good portion of the kitchen floor. Now that the initial mess has been cleared out of its way, the watermelon is still bubbling dribbles of liquid from a hole in its middle.

When I tried to lift it, the rind gave way as if it were made of a thin layer of rubber. It is a fearsome thing, living and breathing with—what? Bacteria or yeast that filtered in through a dent in the rind, I suppose. It is fermenting. This once-solid mass has become an unreliable container of watermelon-flavored booze. When I suggested this to my mother (who has an equal liking for wine and watermelons), she offered to drink it. I actually wish I could offer it up, but not knowing for certain what organism or process caused this reaction, I worry about whether the liquid would be safe to drink. Wasting such an enormous item of food seems like a terrible thing to do, but sadly, this one will have to go into the trash before the rind itself gives way and I have an actual watermelon supernova on my hands.

Meanwhile, two more Moon and Stars watermelons wait in the garden. My surprise melon, the one that hid from me for at least a month before I saw it hiding among the leaves of a coreopsis plant, has expanded impressively. I am quite sure it has grown larger than any other melon I have harvested. It might be somewhere around sixteen or eighteen pounds now. The other Moon and Stars melon is a softball-sized upstart that may not have the chance to grow to maturity.

I am carefully watching the tendril closest to the larger melon. When the tendril browns, I will pick the melon . . . unless it never does turn brown. I picked its sister melon prematurely, because it came off its vine while I was removing the ailing vines of the already-harvested Crimson Sweets. Although it seemed plenty ripe when I finally hacked into it, the flavor, as I mentioned, was not the best. Perhaps the Crimson Sweets spoiled me for other melons, or perhaps another week on the vine would have made an improvement. I don’t know. I can only watch, wait, and try to judge the right time to haul the thing home before it, too, explodes in a sticky miasma of sweet decay.