Friday, September 28, 2007

The Case of the Walla Wallas that Weren’t

Perhaps I’m mistaken, but it seems as though I have the wrong onions.

This has happened to me before with other plants: I planted some flower seeds, and they came up as a collection of sickly, yellowish plants with narrow, hot-pink flowers that resembled none of the pictures on any of my seed packets. They came up in rows, so it was impossible for them to have been mere weeds. I have since identified them as some kind of honeysuckle.

The onions were supposed to be Walla Wallas, sweet onions that grow large and somewhat flat. For a long time, I worried that they would never form bulbs, but toward late summer the grassy stems started to bulge where they met the soil. Contrary to what I had expected (having never grown onions before), the greater part of onions grows above the soil, unlike garlic bulbs, which grow underground. Only the bottom part of the onion, with its set of short, weak roots, is buried in dirt. I waited for the onions to assume their characteristic flatness, but they never did. They stayed compact and perfectly round.

Now it is harvest time. The onion tops are flopping over, cutting off the transfer of nutrients between the leaf stalks and the bulbs. If I were interested in storing my onions, I would fork them out of the ground and cure them for several days in the sun. The curing process takes the moisture out of the outer layers, creating a protective seal around the middle of the onion. That works well for storage onions, which can be kept through the winter, but for sweet onions, it buys very little extra time. In general, sweet onions are said to last only a few weeks after harvest, at best. I resolved, therefore, to eat all my sweet onions fresh from the garden, without curing them.

I picked the first one two days ago, and was ready to eat it raw. Onion experts say that sweet onions are best eaten raw, because, paradoxically, their levels of sugar are often lower than those of storage onions; consequently, sweet onions add far less flavor to cooked dishes than would the typical storage onion. A sweet onion is called sweet because it lacks the chemicals that produce the sensation of sharpness that one gets from most other onions. These are onions of happiness, not sorrow: when you cut into a sweet onion, it does not provoke tears. So the experts have said, and who am I to quarrel with them? But I do know that when I cut into my onion, I wept. When I ate the first slice, I grimaced. It was a good onion, to be sure, but an onion with considerable bite.

The rest of the onion went into a cooked dish—chicken quesadillas—where it performed admirably, enhancing the savoriness of the chicken and cheese and mingling its mild heat with the fire of the hot peppers. I plan to treat the others similarly. Even if they are in fact storage onions and not Walla Wallas, curing the crop may not be worthwhile. I think I can manage to eat them all within the next few weeks, because a cooking onion can be used in everything from goulash to pizza. “An onion in every meal” will be my motto.

Although I was disappointed to find that my supposed Walla Wallas had turned out to be not so sweet, the results have proved satisfactory. The onions were easy to grow: I just plunked the seeds in well-fertilized ground and poured a lot of water on them. They take up very little room in the garden, and the visible expansion of their bulbs has been a joy to watch. And now that I have thought about it, storage onions are perhaps preferable to sweets, for their sheer versatility. I can imagine far fewer ways of eating onions without cooking them.

I have also learned that (contrary to the information on my seed packet) many types of sweet onions can, and in fact should, be planted in fall for a spring crop. The idea of growing something through the winter pleases me, and I think I will try putting some more seeds in—from a new seed packet, naturally. This time, I want to be sure of what I’m planting.

Next year, I will plant storage onions in masses. I would like to prove my self-sufficiency by keeping a root cellar of sorts. To be honest, I must admit that, underneath their skins, my onions are indistinguishable from the store-bought kind. But there’s something enchanting in the thought that those baseballs of compacted water and nutrients grew from the fragile, grassy stalks that popped up in the spring. It’s a feeling of having power—an absurd but refreshing sensation.

Tomatoes may get all the glory in the summer garden, but these onions, humble though they appear, have proved themselves worthy of esteem. Save them a row or two of tillage, and you will be amply rewarded.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Seeds of Uncertainty

Well, I’ve put in the radishes, spinach, lettuce, and peas. Everything except the peas has already come up. It seems as though these cool-weather plants come up much more rapidly when you plant them in actual cool weather. That sounds like it should be self-explanatory, but I had a late start this year and ended up planting everything in June. By that time in Virginia, the weather is already boiling up into a soupy mixture of humidity and skin-searing sunshine.

The spinach came up, but shriveled soon afterward, even though mine was of the Bloomsdale variety, which is supposed to last fairly well against the heat. The Bibb lettuce languished for a while, but later became a success, surprising everyone. Someone told me that lettuce isn’t supposed to do well in this part of the country because the weather is too warm, but mine lasted all through July before it bolted.

I planted the radishes merely as an insect trap, to lure the flea beetles and other leaf-eating insects away from the spinach and lettuce. In general, radishes are a rewarding crop because they’re so vigorous and they grow to maturity in very little time; however, my radishes gave me no excitement because I’m not a radish eater. The sharpness and bitterness of radishes makes my tongue curl up in dismay. For the sake of experimentation, though, I did eat a few of my Cherry Belles, and found their flavor somewhat sweeter than that of grocery store radishes. The Cherry Belle variety forms a marble-sized red root that shrivels up very quickly if you don’t eat it immediately. I wouldn’t recommend it to radish lovers, because it’s too small to provide much satisfaction to the eater.

My greatest hope for the late planting is that the snow peas will produce at least a handful of pods. Nearly all my spring peas were eaten to the ground by the rabbits. Only one plant survived, and it produced one or two sad-looking pods, then turned brown and died. But having planted the spring crop too late, I fear I may have made the same mistake with the fall plants. Success or failure depends on the whims of the weather gods, and all I can do is hope they may smile on my small patch of earth.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Glad Tidings: A Bonus Watermelon

From four watermelon plants, I have produced a grand total of four watermelons. I suspect that an individual watermelon plant should produce more than one melon; therefore, I blame the poor quality of the soil for this pathetically low yield.

At the same time, though, I’m not exactly hurting for watermelon. Just one of these babies fills the fridge very nicely. I have picked two watermelons of the Crimson Sweet variety and eaten one and a quarter (with help from my mother, whose voraciousness with watermelons resembles that of a Kodiak bear). Although the seed packet says these melons can become 25-pounders, the larger of my two melons weighed in at 12 pounds and the smaller at 6 pounds. The flavor of both was as sweet as could be, much sweeter than any other watermelon I have ever eaten. These Crimson Sweets ooze fructose so intensely that it almost seems as though someone had dumped a box of artificial sweetener into my melons. To me, they taste a little unlike watermelons: the tongue hardly notices the slight tang of watermelon-ness while it wallows in all that natural sugar.

The Moon and Stars plants also produced two melons. I picked the first about a week ago, but I’ve been waiting until I’m done with the larger Crimson Sweet before opening it. My Moon and Stars melon is like a dark-green, yellow-spotted bowling ball, beautiful in form.

I thought, at first, that only one melon had developed on the vines, but after I removed the dying Crimson Sweet vines from among the other plants, I was astonished to see another Moon and Stars watermelon, almost as big as the first, developing beside a bushy coreopsis plant. It was a gift from the heavens: a surprise watermelon. That sort of good luck happens all too rarely in life. I consider myself fortunate indeed.

The Juiciest One of All

This morning, I sliced open the first of my Top Sirloin tomatoes to be harvested. I've waited a long time for these big beauties to ripen, and this one rewarded my patience abundantly. When I think of real tomato flavor, this is its epitome: something sweet, but not too sweet, bursting with congealed (and not too watery) juice and tender seeds, and with a tender, succulent, meaty flesh. And so red throughout! The Green Zebras are a fine novelty tomato, but the Top Sirloins are a fruit straight from Eden . . . yes, the tomato is a New World vegetable, but it deserves a place in Old World mythology. My ideal tomato is big and muscular.

In general, I like the idea of planting heirloom varieties and other out-of-the-ordinary types of vegetables, because I like the idea of keeping up some diversity in our food sources. But when something so pleasing tempts the palate, it is foolish to turn it away. I might try a new Italian-style tomato, a new early variety, or a new novelty type, but this Top Sirloin variety will always have a place in my garden . . . that is, as long as I have seeds for it. I do have some leftovers from this year and last year, but I couldn't find it among the varieties at the Ferry-Morse Web site. If it has been discontinued, I'll have to search out another good beefsteak tomato, of a kind that doesn't crack or split easily, ripens to a most glorious uniform shade of scarlet, and perfectly fulfills its promise of velvety, supple flesh and a flavor that can make a person believe in miracles.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Tomatoes, Queens of the Garden

Sure, we gardeners are capable of growing everything from azuki beans to zucchini, but let’s not kid ourselves: the real reason for anyone to even think of growing anything in the first place is to possess, sometime in late summer, those succulent, sweet-tart, juicy tomatoes, whose flavor can’t be bought anywhere else. For my neighbor and me, tomatoes hold the central ground in our gardens. We baby them, carefully tending and transplanting the seedlings. We cage them and stake them and fertilize them lovingly. For their sake, we pick off large caterpillars—hornworms and corn ear borers—with our bare hands, and then smash their guts out on the ground.

It’s not just the taste, either. The tomato is a singularly rewarding plant. If it’s happy and well watered, it keeps growing until it makes a jungle of the gardener’s neat rows. It becomes heavy with fruit that balloons out in a satisfying way until it reaches the desired proportions. Then we have the satisfaction of watching the fruit ripen and become just a bit redder every day until it becomes as pleasingly fat and uniformly bright as a clown’s nose.

In a fit of experimentation (and not wanting to be outdone by the Man with the Perfect Lawn), I planted five varieties of tomatoes this year: Green Zebra, Sweet Pea Currant, Roma VFN, Early Girl, and Top Sirloin. The latter three had all been relatively successful last year, and represented three basic types I thought my garden should always have: the Italian tomato, so piquant in salsas; the early; and the big, muscular, highly impressive beefsteak. I mixed together my Romas and a Green Zebra with some cilantro, garlic, and an Anaheim pepper for a salsa that had more than the usual zing and tartness, so different from the vinegary flavor of the stuff sold in jars at the supermarket.

I chose not to plant Brandywines, deeming them too troublesome. After a long spell of hot, dry weather, followed by torrential rains, last year’s Brandywine tomatoes had all split down the middle, attracting those ugly, small insects that burrow into exposed vegetable flesh. The few Brandywines that ripened properly were mealy in texture. It might have been the weather that did it, but I felt that even an heirloom variety should prove hardier than that.

Instead, I tried the Green Zebras, just for fun. When ripe, they are yellow, with green striping and green flesh. Disappointingly, however, they tasted much like ordinary red tomatoes—perhaps just a little less sweet, but without enough difference to matter much. The plants also yielded little fruit, compared to the other varieties. I might plant them again, but like a blond news anchor who only knows enough to read the TelePrompter and crack silly jokes, they will be kept around primarily for their looks.

I grew the Sweet Pea Currant Tomatoes in planters, as they seemed too delicate for the main garden space. Their seeds were the size of grains of sand, so small that I wondered whether they could germinate successfully. But germinate they did, and the small, fine-leaved plants prospered after I put them in the big flowerpots. They soon started producing feathery yellow flowers that seemed too tiny to attract pollinators. Somehow, those flowers gave rise to hundreds of pearl-shaped tomatoes. When ripe, the tomatoes were thick-skinned but sweet—and something of a chore to pick, because there were so many of them. A hundred of them could fit into the palm of my hand.

But all these tomatoes, though lovely to behold, are also a cause of great anxiety as fall approaches. (Yes, it may seem like the seasons have shifted already, but technically, we have three more days of summer to enjoy, if you include today.) I am keeping careful track of nighttime low temperatures. The Man with the Perfect Lawn says that tomatoes lose their flavor when the temperature dips below 50 degrees. I haven’t found information to corroborate this, but I have read that it’s important to save them from frost. Also, according to this account by Carl Wilson of the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, if a tomato is entirely green, it may not ripen at all. With that in mind, I have decided to leave my tomatoes on the vine as long as possible before the first frost is upon us.

We’ll see who is right. The gardener with the most tomatoes wins the race. Since my neighbor planted his several weeks earlier than I did mine, he has an advantage that is probably unbeatable. Still, I’ll do my best to catch up (pun intended!). I will give the tally when the last fruit rolls in.

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Back to Writing

Much has happened in the garden since my last entry, and I'm back at the keyboard now to chronicle it. Sometimes, when you're working at keeping everything going, it's hard to sit down and reflect on it. The summer has been hot and dry, and I've spent many an hour out there with the hose, giving the soil a good soak. On occasion, I've watered twice a day, wilting a little myself under the pitiless sun. Then, too, there have been the squadrons of insects that have evolved with my garden plants, the better to attack them. The battle with the squash vine borers sapped my energy and strained my emotions.

(Unless you've had a vendetta with garden pests yourself, you might find it hard to understand the kind of outrage that an uncomprehending, otherwise benign life form may cause in its human adversary. One of my friends went so far as to protest, "But it's a higher life form than the plant." Rationally, I must acknowledge that this is so. But in gardening, a primitive kind of emotion takes over that is beyond rational thinking, and which must go back to the days when humans first domesticated crops and began to depend on them for their very survival. It's me against them; their desire to exist against my hunger and hard work; and I cannot let them win.)

Now it is harvest time, or near enough to it to expect that certain crops will be successful, and to bring in a few fully ripe fruits. I have pulled out most of the cantaloupe vines already. The cucumbers, too, are finished, and I have planted cool-weather crops in their place. The hose is idle for longer periods. I have some breathing space, some more room in my mind to categorize everything and recall some of the rich detail about the summer's work. In the coming days, I will write out the entries I have been filing away in my head, and you, the reader, will be able to fill in some of the gaps in the story of the summer, so full of the buzzing of insects and the stealthy, occasionally shocking growth of vines and bushes and roots.