My Summer Garden 2012

Summer has flown by, without any posts on my gardens. I guess I've been too busy getting my hands dirty! It's a dreary wet day, so a good chance for me to catch you up on what I've been growing.

The weather has been odd, with off and on torrential rains through June, then dry and over 100 degrees in July, still hot but with occasional rain in August, and a mixed bag this month. But evidently it has made gardens happy, with a banner year for things like peppers and tomatoes for many local backyard farmers.

My garden strategy this year was not to be overwhelmed with any one crop, and it has been successful. We've had a great variety of vegetables, fruit and herbs. My neighbor shared his abundance of tomatoes, plus sweet and hot peppers; I canned salsa, discovered homemade tomato paste, and made marinara sauce to freeze. Our one cooking Keifer pear tree yielded a big harvest during the last month, which I made into pear sauce (like apple sauce) and froze. Four minutes in the pressure cooker is all it takes for a big batch of apple or pear sauce - try it. (I'll be posting a Spice Cake made with pear sauce soon - it's yummy.) A few volunteer plants popped up in my garden, either from birds dropping seeds or from seeds still viable in my compost soil. Two of these surprise plants turned out to produce wonderful sweet cantaloupes, in addition to the Hale's Best melons I had purposely planted. I found what cantaloupe couldn't be eaten right away can be cut into chunks and frozen in zip bags for a great smoothie ingredient. Another volunteer plant has given a us a regular supply of tasty pickling cucumbers, enough for a couple of jars of refrigerator pickles. Otherwise, we've pretty well kept up with eating everything freshly harvested. Our diet is very healthy!

My bush Blue Lake green beans grew in slow motion at the start, but then provided what seemed to be an extended period of production, largely free of bug damage. I have been growing okra for the first time, a Midget Cowhorn Okra variety and a standard tall one, Crimson Spineless Okra. The midgets produced just as well, on strong stalks not over 3 feet tall, and tasted just as good. I've cooked the okra in many different ways, and we love it. I've panfired the Southern-favorite cornmeal-breaded slices, panfried the okra with onions and carmelized in soy sauce, added slices to stirfries, grilled whole pods until charred then eaten like French fries, sauteed and added to pasta sauce, and cooked them in a big pot of Seafood Gumbo. I even like to eat small okra pods raw! If you've ever eaten okra and found it was too slimy, I would guess it was either sitting around too long after being harvested or not cooked properly. Okra is going to be a mainstay in my future veggie gardens, especially since it's virtually pest- and disease-free.

Chufa, a grass which produces a nut-like tuber
My friends Art and Judy gave me a big bag of marigold seeds and I started a bed early in the spring. They grew wonderfully, into bushy foot-tall plants, which I transplanted all over the vegetable garden. Slow to flower, but once they started it's been an endless flood of orange/yellow blossoms. They add much to the garden: beauty, attraction to pollinating bees, and - I believe, although some authorities disregard this - detering harmful bugs from the vegetable plants. I like the scent; it reminds me of a little garden I planted when I was about 10 years old, so I must have planted marigolds. I've gathered loads of seeds to replant these next year.

As I mentioned in a spring post, I quarantined my tomato plants. This helped to delay and minimize the onset of blight, long enough so I've gotten a good harvest, considering I only grew 3 tomato plants. The "Legend" variety, an heirloom resistant to blight, has done the best for me. Only recently the plants have been under attack by hornworms, so my challenges continue! I seemed to be winning the war with grasshoppers. The white netting I laid over the sweet potato bed when I planted it has filled up with a mass of lush, healthy, un-eaten vines underneath, so I am looking forward to a good potato harvest later this fall.

Other successes in this year's vegetable garden include Japanese long cucumbers, Albino Bullnose sweet peppers (start out an ivory color and mature to bright orange), Patio Red Marconi sweet peppers, and Black Beauty eggplant.

I tried growing Kabouli Black garbanzo beans, but I consider this experiment a failure. Each little pod only produced 2 seeds, and they were all shriveled up. Plus it seemed to take forever to grow. I've also been growing a grassy plant called chufa (or chuffa) which should yield some little nut-like tubers on the roots before frost hits… I'll report on those after harvest. I grew a cucumber-bug resistant plant called West India Burr Gherkins, which I grew in a tall tomato cage. It climbed well up the cage then overflowed, looking like a topiary of Cousin It! The oval spiny fruit is hard to pick and eat, so I mostly used it in smoothies, since it's very mild tasting. Didn't attract bugs, but I don't think I'll grow it again. Cushaw White Squash was also supposed to be squash bug resistant, but succumbed to wilt (usually transmitted by squash bugs) and I had only harvested one big squash. It's been in cool storage in the basement since; we'll eat it later in the fall. Other new plants in this year's garden include lime basil, with fabulous lime flavor, great for pesto or used fresh in fruit smoothies; Perilla Purple Zi Su or "shiso" which is a lush dark red foliage plant used raw in salads, fresh in smoothies, or added to cooked food, like rice, to color it pink; cinnamon basil which is strong in its spicy flavor and will be in all my gardens from now on. Anise hyssop grew wonderfully from seed, has a great licorice flavor for tea or smoothies, and attracted masses of bees to its pretty purple flowers. I'll miss these flavorful herbs in the winter, but I've dried lots of their leaves and made vodka-based tinctures also. I've done the same with my super sweet stevia plants, started from seed, harvested for its leaves.
Black garbanzos

With autumn arriving soon, I've been planting my fall/winter crops. Garlic went in 2 weeks ago and I'll do another planting of it in Oct. I started seedlings in my basement, where the temp is about 65, for Georgia collards, brussels sprouts, Blue Curled Scotch and Siberian kale, Bulls Blood beets, and spinach. I've already transplanted some into the garden, holding back half the seedlings in case hot weather returns and destroys the first planting. I also sowed seeds for a few kinds of lettuce, and a mild tasting green I've not tried before - called mache or corn salad. It's time to plant cilantro (coriander) seeds now too; I've already transplanted one which Mother Nature started in my "excess" garden. I'm going to try a bed of pea pods, which I've only grown here in early spring, to see if I can get a late fall harvest. We've gotten several inches of rain in the past 12 hours, so I might have lettuce and mache growing all over the garden soon!

Garden season continues here in Zone 7. I'm already thinking about different crops; my friend Judy shared Dragon's Tongue Bush Beans from her garden, and they are so tasty I've made her promise to save me seeds. I just tried cooking turnips, prepared as you would mashed potatoes, which I bought from the nearby Mennonite farm, and they were so tasty that I'd like to try to grow some myself. They are a cool weather crop, so if I can find some seedling plants I'll try growing them soon. Tomorrow will be a great day for pulling weeds, with the saturated clay soil all loosened up. Happy gardening!