Sunday, August 24, 2008

What do you do with the mid-season glut?

This problem has plagued gardeners for time immemorial: the feast and famine of favored vegetables. A month ago, I was begging for ripe tomatoes, now I have more than I know what to do with. In another month, I'll be wishing for them again. Such is life. So what do you do when you have too much of a good thing? While I highly recommend veggie art like I've made here, there are a few good recipes for this point in the season to utilize your top ingredients quickly. One of my favorites is one we call midsummer's pasta. Its quality is really reflected in the ingredients, so if you are forced to use store-bought tomatoes, non-fresh mozzarella, low quality olive oil, or wilted, week-old store basil, don't even bother.

Midsummer's Pasta (serves 3-4)

1/2 lb fresh mozzarella, diced
4 medium garden tomatoes, diced (I like red, purple and pink ones for this, but yellow/gold might be good)
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/2 cup good extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh garden basil
2 tsp Kosher salt
Fresh ground pepper
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
3/4 lb dry linguine

Add cheese, tomato, garlic, oil, basil and salt to a mixing bowl and season liberally with the pepper. Mix it together, making sure to coat everything in the oil. Let sit at room temperature for a half hour.

While you're waiting, cook the pasta according to package directions in a pot of salted water until al dente. Drain, and return it to the pot.

Fold the tomato mixture into the pasta while the pasta's still warm, mixing well. Serve warm or at room temperature, depending on your taste.

This is refreshing on a hot summer night with a good pinot grigio.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

When the gods are against you

Rain. Sometimes, it's a savior. Other times, it's well, less than a savior. I put off watering my plants the last couple days, and was planning on doing it today. Today, however, the weather had other plans. It came down in buckets, creating major flooding, flooding the inside of my house (because I was dumb and left the windows open 2 inches) and major problems in my garden. Not only is it messing with the water level of my tomatoes (thus raising the chance of blossom end rot and splitting Sungolds), but the volume of water actually *broke* one of my tomato stakes right off, luckily
not breaking the stem, but knocking four green Brandywines off the vine. Those of you that grow Brandywines know I can't afford to lose those, they might end up being a full third of my harvest of that variety.

Also, rain messes with my plans for my hot peppers. Hot peppers, as many of you know, get hotter when they're starved for moisture after the fruit is on the vine. I'm growing mostly hot peppers that are on the low end of my tolerance, heat-wise, so I was going to strain them a little bit to bring them more into the medium-salsa range. This flood kind of screws those plans.

On the other end of the spectrum, I grew cabbages for the first time this year, and I think the lack of moisture for the last week made the rabbits a bit more daring, and they took a chunk out of one this morning. So out comes the harvesting knife, despite wanting to grow them a little bigger. I'd rather have two large-softball sized ones with a bunny-sized chunk out of them than nothing worth eating, though. If the bunnies just could have waited until later today, they could have had all the water they could have wanted.

Que sera sera.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Botanical Genocide

As you’ve heard me mention in my two previous entries, my garden had somewhat of an…accident early in the season. I utilize two four foot sun-spectrum fluorescent grow bulbs to grow plants from seed in my basement, typically starting in February with my leeks, early March for my peppers and eggplants, and mid-March for my tomatoes. Various herbs and other vegetables are started between those dates.

I had great success with this for two years at the duplex, not only raising tomatoes and peppers from seed, but keeping my perennial herbs alive over the winter. However, this year, I moved to a house with a large, somewhat moist basement. The dehumidifier that the previous tenant left with the house wasn’t sufficient to keep the basement from smelling musty, so I set up the one we bought for the duplex as well. Even this wasn’t apparently sufficient, as I had an outbreak of powdery mildew amongst my herbs in February. Fearing for this year’s crop, I cranked down both dehumidifiers to 35% humidity to stop and prevent further outbreak.

Life at 35% humidity was hard on my plants, and I had to water two or three times a day to fight against the dehumidifiers. Seedlings were often wilty by the time I got to them. But things came to a head in April when I came down ill with the flu, and forgot to water one day. That apparently was enough. My Purple Haze eggplants, Chapman and German Red Strawberry tomatoes, Fish, Ancho, NuMex, Hungarian Wax, and Lipstick peppers, as well as my cache of stevia, salad burnet and leeks were all severely dehydrated or dead. By the time I took a long-weekend vacation in early May, the aforementioned were dead, and my stocks of several other plants were severely depleted.

So for the first time in three years, I was forced to actually buy vegetable plants at the nursery this season. This was tough, as I get quite a bit of joy out of picking the exact plants I want over the winter, and was particularly looking forward to the Fish and Lipstick peppers. While I was able to find Hungarian Wax and Ancho peppers at the nursery, everything else ended up being a bit of a concession.

How am I going to fix this next year? Of that, I’m unsure. With powdery mildew on one end, and dehydration on the other, I’m stuck either finding some way to constantly water just the soil, or enclose the plants to become their own climate, and find some other way to avoid powdery mildew.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Eggplants, eggplants, the viable fruit?

Eggplants are a funny thing. The agricultural branch of the Ohio State University considers them "...of limited importance." We use eggplants in our household somewhat infrequently, but when we do use them, they are given a certain reverence. They're a bizarre, mealy, almost bready fruit, related to the tomato and potato, but from their loins is borne the heavenly baba ghanouj.

Two years ago, I decided to try my hand at growing eggplants from seed, when I saw an ad in Seed Savers for a lavender and white Italian eggplant by the name of Rosa Bianca. At the time, I was living in a duplex, and had a long, 18 inch by 20 foot flower garden I was allowed to use, but was not allowed to remove the heavy clay in that bed due to the landlord using the clay as a failsafe against basement flooding. It was facing the south with good sun, however, and I fertilized it, so I was hoping I could still pull it off. How wrong I was.

By the time of the first frosts, despite all the pampering I could do outside of removing clay, the plant only had two eggplants on it, one the size of a cherry tomato, the other the size of a nectarine. I was frustrated and disappointed, and decided that eggplants simply needed a longer season than I was able to provide them, and thus, didn't try to grow them last season.

This season, however, I'm in a house, and built a few raised beds filled with a decent balance of aged horse manure, hay, topsoil, a little clay, sand, and peat. As such, I decided to try my hand at eggplants again. While the ones I grew from seed (Purple Haze) died in the basement (I really misjudged the climate down there, I guess), I picked up three plants from the nursery (two standard Black Beauties and a Fairy Tale), and put them in next to my peppers. Now they're going gangbusters. The Fairy Tale plant (shown at top) has at least eight eggplants on it, and they're growing rapidly. The Black Beauties (on bottom) are being a bit more conservative, with one that has an avocado-sized eggplant, and the other that has a grape-sized one. Hopefully they'll pick up with the heat of summer.

I've found that interplanting chamomile with my peppers and eggplants is really working out; I think I'll do that again next year. The chamomile has invited hundreds of those little hover wasps (Tachon...something?) to my garden, which have really kept down the insectoid pest population. Now, if they'd just swarm together into an invertebrate Voltron and fend off the rabbits, I'd plant chamomile everywhere. In addition to the hover wasps, the chamomile is shading the fruit of the peppers and and eggplants, making the peppers feel like they're packed together (which they seem to like for some reason), and making a nice apply smell when I brush past. I really ought to go out there and dry some, but I'm just afraid of taking the flowers away from those nice wasps.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The First Ripe Tomato

If I had to pick one vegetable (well, fruit) to define gardening for me, it would be the tomato. The hearkening of the first ripe tomato ushers in the 'harvest' portion of the year, and from as early as I can remember, I was climbing up onto my mother's washing machine to get to the lacquered, woven-stick basket for tomatoes out of the cupboard, then heading out the back door towards the garden to collect ripe ones.

Today marks the day of the tomato, as I pick my very first ripe ones of the season. That honor goes to the first in line of my ten tomato plants, my Sungold.

This wasn't too much of a surprise, as they've pretty consistently been first the two years previous, though a few Riesentraubes gave them a run for their money last year. Sungolds also mark my first true concession into the realm of hybrid tomatoes since I've begun growing my own plants from seed. You simply cannot get the flavor and sugar of a Sungold in anything I've found in heirloom tomatoes. Other than the fact that they split when they've seen too much water at one time, the Sungold is quite possibly the perfect cherry tomato.