1/24/11

Lessons from my Garden

I've bought my new seeds, started some seedlings, and I'm reviewing last year's garden successes and failures while planning the 2011 garden. Here are some things I learned:

    Tomato plant growing in the cold frame.
  • Onions: Even though I "cured" my harvested onions as prescribed, I found most either sprouted or rotted in storage. I had been more successful in past years, so perhaps our growing season was too wet. Fortunately, I harvested so many at once that I also dehydrated onions. This proves to be a great option for me, since the dehydrated onions can be used for dips, soups, and other recipes. To dehydrate I peeled the onions then quartered them. I pulsed them very briefly in my food processor, just to get them chopped. (Processing them too long will turn them to onion mush.) Beware of the fumes when you take of the lid! I did all this on the porch so the house wouldn't fill with the onion fragrance. Then I spread the chopped onions in a thin layer on parchment sheets on my electric dehydrator trays. I dried them until they were brittle and golden, then packed what I wouldn't be using right away in a vacuum sealed mason jar.
  • Tomatoes: I grew several varieties of tomatoes, and I'll try others next season. The Brandywines had a fabulous flavor, but they crack even if you pick them early and ripen indoors. I learned I prefer a smaller tomato, and I weighed some to determine 7 to 8 oz. is a perfect size salad tomato for me. I also grew a hybrid called "Jelly Bean" and they were tiny and the sweetest I ever tasted. I am leaning away from hybrids, so when I've used all those seeds I won't repurchase them. Late in the season I grew "Amish Paste." They were larger than Romas, very low in seeds, meaty, and very flavorful… worth repeating. They are also "indeterminate" which means they fruit continuously during the season, vs. "determinate" like Romas, which are compact plants but ripen their fruit over a shorter time period then stop setting new fruit. Also regarding tomatoes, many gardeners in my area had "tomato blight". If you know any organic solutions, please let me know.
  • Winter Squashes: My harvest was limited, due to an infestation of squash bugs, but I've verified that Waltham Butternut Squashes are all I need to plant in this category. They store in my basement for nearly a year, they can be substituted in any recipe for pumpkin, they are good producers, and they taste great. The white with jagged green stripes acorn-type which I planted turned cream with orange stripes and were gorgeous, but disappointing in the taste test. I think planting the Butternut (and its cousin Cantaloupe) a bit later in the season might help miss the cycle of squash bugs, and our season is long enough to allow me to do that.
  • Eggplants: I planted two varieties, and the heirloom "Black Beauty" wins out over the long skinny "Early Longs". They had better taste and were easier to cook with. I continue to be plagued with flea beetles, which eat away at the young eggplant foliage, but toward the end of summer they had left and the plants produced vigorously. So my solution in 2011 will be to start my eggplants later. 
  • Beans: All my snap beans suffered from bug bites on the leaves and beans, so I barely got enough to eat fresh. In 2011 I am returning to my favorite bush varieties, Blue Lake Bush and Golden Wax. Both are stringless, taste great fresh (I eat them raw!), and freeze well. Hopefully I can manage the bugs.
  • Strawberries: To keep down weeds in my "June-bearing" strawberry bed, I had planted them in two staggered rows in black landscape fabric, and covered that with a layer of straw. Big no-no. Perhaps this might have worked if we had less rain, but the result was that after I harvested a good crop of berries a fungus or mildew developed under the straw and killed the plants. Fortunately, many at the end of the patch had sent out babies that I was too busy to snip off, and I let all the runners grow freely into the other sections of the vegetable garden. By the end of summer, I dug up enough new strawberry plants to replant the original bed (with no mulch this time), planted two new beds (in case the original bed retained any fungus), and had enough left to share with a friend.
  • Garlic & Basil: 'Can't have too much garlic, but I can have too much basil! My garlic harvest has stored very well and should hold me through the next harvest, around July. But 20 basil plants supplied me with too much, fresh and frozen. I think I'll still have some in the freezer well beyond next summer, so I'll try to limit myself to just a couple of plants this year, just for fresh use.
  • Experiment! Just to see what would happen, I planted some of the mung beans I use for growing sprouts, and two plants grew well and produced a little crop! This year I plan to grow Huckleberries, a melon which will store for months in the basement, calendula flowers (edible and dried for an ingredient in lotions and salves), and new varieties of tomatoes and cucumbers. I'm also going to try some different growing methods, like trellising my cucumbers so they grow up off the ground.
  • Black Beauty Eggplant, ready to pick.
  • Cold Frame: I purchased an Austrian-made Juwel 1000 cold frame last February, and it was a great addition to my garden. The assembly instructions were in German, but my handy husband managed to figure out how it went together from the diagrams. We positioned it in one corner of our raised bed vegetable garden. I used it for numerous purposes:  hardening-off indoor seedlings before setting in the open garden, rooting cuttings from chrysanthemums and other plants, growing my second crop of tomato seedlings, starting fall seedlings, and, now that it's winter, growing lettuce and spinach plants under protection. Temperatures have fallen below 10 degrees F many times already, and several inches of snow have covered the top at times, but the lettuce and spinach plants look healthy and happy inside!

Like fellow gardeners, I am anxious for warmer weather and getting my hands dirty again soon!