Inhale…Say “Ahh”…

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Sweet Pea Matucana closeup…That would be the sweet peas you’re smelling!

I’m growing a lovely Italian heirloom variety called ‘Matucana’  this year that, as you can see, has a striking violet and fuschia color combination. And the scent is divine!

I purchased the seeds from West Coast Seeds who claim that it was brought to Britain by a Sicilian monk in 1700. A quick Google search reveals conflicting opinions on the truth of this with other histories stating it originated in Peru or that it was developed in the 1920’s. Whatever its origins, I’m in love!

If you want to try this variety (or any sweet pea), soak the seeds in a little water for about 8 hours – they have a hard seed coat that needs a little softening to make germination better. Plant in a sunny spot and give them lots of support – mine are against a fence that I’ve attached some netting to. Like other plants, keep water consistent and give them a little fertilizer now and then. Deadhead regularly or use them as a cut flower to keep them blooming.


Everybody’s Growing It

Thursday, August 19th, 2010
A portion of the zucchini harvest.

A portion of the zucchini harvest.

It seems like everyone grows zucchini! And, why not? It’s easy to grow, it’s prolific (understatement), and its leaves provide a lovely, bold contrast to the smaller foliage of most of the other plants in the kitchen garden. It’s also easy to cook with – it can be used up front and center when stuffed and baked, it plays well with others in dishes like ratatouille, and it can be disguised with sugar and chocolate and baked into a cake. What’s not to love?

Well, for me, I’m discovering 3 plants is more than enough for my husband and I. I’ve missed a couple of days of harvesting and now have a zucchini the size of my thigh! Seriously, I’m not kidding!

Also, it’s been a wet summer and, while I’ve placed the zucchinis in the hottest part of the garden, there’s been a good amount of fruit rot and slug damage, making harvesting a sometimes icky process.

I’m growing two kinds of zucchini this year. Ronde de Nice is a French heirloom whose seeds I purchased from West Coast Seeds. It’s a cute thing – round and stripey – with unusual grey and pale green variegated leaves that really stand out in the garden. To take advantage of the shape of the fruit, in cooking I think it would work well stuffed and baked. It’s supposedly bruises easily which is why it’s not readily available in grocery stores (although you may be able to find it at some farmers’ markets). Portofino hybrid is the other zucchini I’m growing with seeds from William Dam Seeds. An Italian zucchini, it seems to be more prolific than the Ronde de Nice and its taste is usually described as nutty. But, as I mentioned, it’s BIG; if you grow this type, be prepared to get creative in your cooking because one squash is going to provide you with a lot of dishes!

Ronde de Nice zucchini hiding behind its stunning leaves.

Ronde de Nice zucchini hiding behind its stunning leaves.

Ronde de Nice leaves.

Ronde de Nice leaves provide a striking counterpoint in the kitchen garden.

Both are, as I mentioned, easy to grow. Give them a well-draining, compost-rich soil, lots of sun, and, most important, consistent watering. In the south, you might be plagued with squash vine borer – a nasty little bug (it’s actually the larvae that causes the damage) that inhabits the stems of plants and causes the plant to constantly look wilted no matter how often you water. There are a number of recommendations to prevent the squash vine borer – prevention seems to be the key since there don’t appear to be any organic pesticides:

1. Make sure to dispose of any infected plants – and not in the compost, unless you know your compost can really heat up. The larvae inhabits the stem before burrowing into the surrounding soil and you don’t want it to just be kept warm and toasty through the winter – you want it to fry!

2. For those with the room, you can till the soil. I’m not so keen about this method since I think one should disturb the soil as little as possible to allow the micro-organisms and mycorrhizae to do their thing but if you’re desperate and have been battling the squash vine borer for a while, you might want to try it as a last-ditch effort.

3. The adults are considered a moth and, when they emerge from the soil in about June, they lay eggs at the base of the plant. You can put down floating row covers over the plant to prevent the moths from laying eggs but, if you’re worried that pollinators won’t be able to get to the flowers, you can try…

4. …Wrapping the stems in nylon pantyhose to prevent the larvae from chewing its way in.

5. Once you know you have squash vine borer larvae (those wilting leaves), sometimes you can remove them by hand. Make a slit in the stem and, after digging the larva out,  cover the stem with soil to promote root formation.

Here in the north, this summer, the squash vine borer is not my problem – slugs are. I made a tactical error and planted too close together – space the plants about 2 feet apart – and then we had a wet growing season. The big leaves shade the soil and provide a moist environment for the slugs that proceed to chew to their heart’s content. I take great delight in stomping on them, proving yet again that gardening is not a gentle art.

I’ve been really looking forward to the zucchini this year, maybe because I could never grow it very successfully in Texas, and last year, the first year for the northern garden, I didn’t plant it because I didn’t grow my own transplants and had to rely on what was available in the garden centres. They’re an easy thing to start inside and you can find my tutorial series on seed starting here:

on containers

on shelving

on lighting

on hardening off

I’ve already used the Portofino in a couple of ratatouille dishes and I’m definitely going to make a chocolate cake at some point. But zucchini flowers, in fact, all squash blossoms, can be used in cooking. When you’re in the mood for something different, head on over to my terribly talented friend Lisa’s blog and see what she can do with a squash blossom.

If you’re not growing it already, what are you waiting for? Jump on the zucchini bandwagon.

Playing With String

Monday, August 9th, 2010

It’s often been my experience that my most successful projects have been ones where the constraints have been clear and immovable – such as a small budget or a difficult site. When it came to coming up with some way of elegantly supporting my tomato plants, I was definitely constrained by a limited budget (having already spent a goodly amount on the lumber to build the beds and the gravel to cover the paths). So I quickly discarded the idea of using copper piping (so sad – how gorgeous would the patina-ed copper have looked?) and, I soon discovered, plain old metal piping wasn’t much cheaper (it would have cost $120, at least, to have supports for only four beds). Plastic piping wasn’t the look I was going for so, in the end, I settled for bamboo – a slightly more rustic aesthetic than what I aspired to but it was well within budget and I learned a new skill.

I’ve previously used metal spiral stakes to support my tomato plants, curving the stem around the stake as the plant grew. The problem is that my stakes aren’t tall enough for the cherry tomato varieties and not sturdy enough for the heavier fruiting varieties (they tended to lean during the more prolific seasons). The concept for the new supports is the same except that string is used instead of the spiralling metal – a technique used by commercial tomato growers that’s easily adaptable for a residential kitchen garden.

All I needed was a way to support the string and that’s where the bamboo came in (and my knowledge base expanded).

The first step was connecting two bamboo poles together to form an upside-down vee.

Shear lashing is used to connect two bamboo poles together.

Shear lashing is used to connect two bamboo poles together.

A search on the Internet revealed that the best way to do this is with a shear lashing. I calculated how high I wanted to hang the string and marked the height on the two poles. Making sure the tops of the poles were level, I connected them using the shear lashing with some regular garden twine at the location of the height markings.

The second step was installing the vees.

Two of those vees were pounded down onto either side of a bed, making sure that the distance at the base of each vee was the same. A fifth pole was laid horizontally between the two vees and eyeballed to see if it was level – if not, the vees were adjusted up or down.

Bamboo vees installed and levelled.

Bamboo vees installed and levelled.

The third step (and the most time-consuming) was attaching the string.

Using the same garden twine that was used for the lashings, I tied a length of twine to the base of each vee. Then I connected those lengths with another piece of twine (paralleling the horizontal bamboo pole at the top of the vees). Lastly, I tied a length of twine (one per tomato plant) to the horizontal bamboo pole and secured it to the bottom piece of twine – not too tightly because you need this supporting string to have a little give so that you can easily twist the tomato stem around it.

It took me an entire day (including researching knot tying) to build enough supports for 8 beds. The grand total for 36 eight-foot lengths of bamboo and a ball of garden twine cost me $49.93, including tax.And the new supports appear to be more than adequate for the dizzying heights reached by my cherry tomatoes and the heavy fruiting stems.

The vertical support string is tied to the horizontal bamboo pole.

The vertical support string is tied to the horizontal bamboo pole.

The vertical support string is tied to the horizontal base string.

The vertical support string is tied to the horizontal base string.

Twine is tied to the base of each vee pole.

Twine is tied to the base of each vee pole.

The finished result: the tomato is (gently) twisted around the vertical supporting string.

The finished result: the tomato is (gently) twisted around the vertical supporting string.

Best of all, the supports make the kitchen garden feel more like a garden room, although they are visually light enough to not make the small space feel constricted. Birds have taken to perching on the poles and, in my more eccentric moments, I imagine hanging tea light lanterns on them and tenting them with billows of fabric (maybe not at the same time though unless I like all my vegetables to be grilled). Definitely another case where constraints made the project.