Sunday, September 20, 2015

Lessons Learned in the Vegetable Garden

It's been exciting to see how productive our veggie garden has been this year.  In Spring we built raised beds and added drip irrigation, and that has made all the difference from last year's paltry harvest.

Veggie garden this September
But still, there are always lessons to be learned and things to be improved, and here are a few things that this summer has taught me:

1.  No one needs three full raised beds of Tomatillos.  Not even me.

Harvest on 9/18/15 - Green beans, Ground Cherries, 2 Cucumbers, and tons of Tomatillos
These very hardy, prolific plants did well even last year in my garden, but given a raised bed full of decent soil?  They went nuts.  To be fair, I intended half of them to be for snacking as opposed to cooking, as last year I grew a variety that was great eaten raw.  However, this year the same variety just wasn't as sweet for whatever reason.

So what to do with bushels of Tomatillos?  Let's just say that, even though I gave several bags of Tomatillos away, I could supply the whole neighborhood with Salsa Verde for the entire winter.  And maybe next.

2. Bees don't visit greenhouses.

I grew most of my tomatoes in containers in my greenhouse this year.  During the first half of the summer, the plants grew lush and full, with lots of flowers - but no tomatoes.  I was puzzled why I wasn't getting any tomatoes, and I can't believe it took me as long as it did to have my 'duh' moment: tomatoes are pollinated by bees or wind, neither of which I have in my greenhouse.

Apparently one must hand-pollinate plants in greenhouses by either using a cotton swab/small brush to pollinate individual flowers or by tapping on the plant supports to 'shake down' the pollen.  After realizing this, I finally started getting some tomatoes.

That's more like it.
3.  You can actually eat a marigold.  But only the petals.

I love to grow flowers in my vegetable garden to 'pretty it up', and I justify it to myself by planting flowers that are edible, usually Nasturtiums.  This year, however,  I was intrigued by the Gem Marigolds (Tagetes tenuifolia), which were reported to be the 'best tasting' marigolds, so I bought and planted seeds for 'Lemon Gem' and 'Tangerine Gem'.  The taste is described as 'floral with hints of citrus and spice, and slightly bitter'.  Curious, I popped one in my mouth one day.

I described the taste as more like 'pungently awful'.

After the fact, I learned that one is supposed to just eat the petals, not the entire flower, as the base is 'quite bitter'.  After getting up my courage to try them again, I found that the petals were much more pleasant and mild tasting.   I don't know if I'll start adding them to my salads, but at least it's doing it's job of looking very pretty in the veggie garden!

4.  'Gardening for food' and 'gardening for wildlife' are not mutually exclusive.

This year, in particular, I noticed just how much wildlife was enjoying my vegetable garden.  Possibly even too much, as there were the Potato Beetles that enjoyed my tomatillo leaves and the Squash Vine Borers that wiped out my zucchini plants. But the garden was also a big hit with the beneficial wildlife.  In fact, the parts of my garden that attracted the most bumblebees were (1) my catmint patch and (2) my vegetable garden.

I was also surprised how many birds were constantly in the garden.  They do love to eat my Ground Cherries, and thankfully the plants are prolific enough that there are plenty for the birds and for us.  But they also help me out by eating unwanted bugs, and, in at least one case, by helping out the bees with pollination:

the little hummingbird that loved my veggie garden
When you take a closer look, even the vegetable garden is teeming with life.

And I think that's how it should be.

I'm joining in 'Lessons Learned' with Beth at her blog Plant Postings, where you can find out what other gardeners have learned this past season.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Extreme Gardening

"What do you do for exercise?" a doctor asked me at a recent visit.
"Extreme gardening," I said.

You might laugh, Doctor, but it's true.

In spring I work on muscle building, using such exercise equipment known as the 'shovel' and the 'wheelbarrow'.  When an extreme gardener spends two months moving compost from the town dump to her five new and very large raised beds, believe me, the gardener finds arm, leg, and back muscles she never knew she had.

And to make sure that I hit all muscle groups possible, I alternate 'soil-moving' with such exercise moves as 'swinging the pick-axe', 'edging the garden beds' (which is a surprising calf exercise for those of you who have never used a half-moon edger), and, of course, the popular 'rock-excavating' (a local, New England whole body exercise that also works on character-building by way of keeping one's temper).

Once summer hits, I move to focusing more on legs, abs, and triceps.  Days spent pulling hundreds of weeds means many lunges, squats, and, well, whatever the technical name is for 'bending over'.  Extra focus is given to stamina and speed.

Now that it is late summer, I am working on flexibility and balance.  The garden has turned into a jungle-like training ground, and in order to harvest, prune, weed, or do pretty much anything, one must stretch and twist one's limbs into unnatural, pretzel like poses - without falling over into said jungle.

You know those people in spy movies that bend and flip over red laser beams so as not to set of any alarms?  Those people have nothing on a gardener that has to somehow harvest her cucumbers on the far side of the garden bed without breaking any of the multiple plant stems criss-crossing her path.

You might worry, Doctor, about what exercise I might do during winter, and rightly so.  But don't worry too much - around here, 'extreme gardening' has a tendency to give way to another popular local exercise known as 'extreme snow-removal'.

Let's just say those shoveling muscles come in real handy.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Have Your Sedum and Eat It Too

We finally got a much-needed rainstorm the other day after a long stretch of dry weather this summer.  After weeks with very little rain, I start feeling very thankful for those plants that can withstand some drought and still look good doing it.  My hellstrip, in particular, still looks pretty decent and even has some blooms, despite very little watering from me, thanks to such drought tolerant plants as Alyssum, Nicotiana, Catmint, Coreopsis, and, of course, the often overlooked but hardworking Sedums.

Sedum 'Purple Emperor'
There are an impressive 600 different species of these succulent plants, which are also called 'Stonecrop' as they are often found in the wild growing on rocky ledges.  They are native to the Northern Hemisphere, with several varieties native to North America, and they bloom throughout the summer.  Many people are familiar with Sedum 'Autumn Joy', but I love how there are so many different cultivars out there now, including many with different colored foliage.

Sedum 'Purple Emperor'
This year I planted several Sedum 'Purple Emperor', which has dark purple (almost black!) leaves.  I planted them from small bare roots and am impressed that the little plants are blooming despite having been almost entirely neglected in this dry weather. 

My favorite Sedum in the garden, however, is the chartreuse-leaved Sedum 'Angelina'.

Sedum 'Angelina'
As a creeping ground cover, I have to admit that it is rather hard to weed, but I am in love with its brilliant yellow foliage.  It shoots up stalks of little yellow flowers which some gardeners actually cut off because they detract from the pretty leaves and creeping form.  I leave the flowers as the bees enjoy them, and, well, I don't even have time to trim out the ugly dying things from my garden, much less anything that can remotely be called a pretty flower.  (Guilty Admission: There are some weeds I leave in the garden just because they bloom and aren't crabgrass.)

Sedum 'Angelina' flowers
And just in case you needed another reason to appreciate the hardworking Sedum, did you know you could eat them?  Most Sedums are edible.

Sedum spectabile is reported to have a bland flavor.
I haven't tried it.
(Please note that the exception to this is Sedum rubrotinctum - aka, the 'Jelly Bean plant' or 'Pork and Beans' - which is ironically poisonous.  Also, some of the yellow-flowering Sedums can be slightly toxic if eaten in large amounts.)

Sedum kamtschaticum can be eaten raw when young and tender.  When older, cook briefly to help remove toxicity.
Yeah, I haven't tried this one either.
I haven't tried eating my garden Sedum, but it is apparently good in salads and stir-fries, with the young, tender shoots tasting best.  And good news for gardeners who have the common 'Autumn Joy' - I've read that it is one of the better tasting Sedums.

Yum yum?
Feeling adventurous and looking for a recipe for your garden Sedums?
Here are some online recipes to try:

Sedum kamtschaticum going to seed
Sedum is more popular in Korean cooking, and in South Korea one is more likely to find it at the grocery store.  Here in the US there are very few sources, unless you happen to stumble upon it at a farmer's market or know some people...

A basket of ingredients for the cooking competition TV show Chopped that includes Wagyu rib-eye steaks, jalapeño chips, mangoes - and pink pearl Sedum.

or you could just eat it out of your garden.

Anyone tried it?

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