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.