December 16, 2015

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Garden Porn

‘Tis the season for garden porn! I got my first new seed catalog in the mail last week and another this week. Usually, I tear into them immediately and stay up past my bedtime reading about all the different varieties of  veggies and dreaming of spring. Not this year.

The problem is, it is very “spring-like” here. I know, some of you may think I’m trying to say fall, but no. I have memories of fall. The cold creeps in about late September, but definitely by Halloween. We dig out winter clothes and jackets, gloves, scarves and ice-scrapers. Leaves on trees turn brown (we don’t get much red in the desert southwest), and icy winds blow them away.

South central Texas is a bit different. It cools down a bit in October (80’s), the a bit more in November (70’s), the refrigerated A/C cycles on and off less frequently, everything that withered and died in the heat comes to life again. We have “green” for the first time in months. In my garden, I have tomatoes, peppers, and summer squash that struggled through the heat coming back to life. My little patio garden is still very much in full swing. Some things are even doing better now than they did in summer. In other words, it’s too early for my to get excited about next season when this one is still rollin’ right along!

Not to worry, though. The last two nights we had a “freeze” scare. It dropped down to 35º. Northerners, please stop laughing. I promise you I will get the last laugh when I am wearing shorts on Christmas day. And then we’ll probably get some freak winter storm for New Year’s Eve and someone’s mobile home will blow on to Interstate 10… okay, go ahead and laugh.

Anyhow, I long for a cold winter day in January, all bundled up on the couch with a hot coffee and a stack of seed catalogs. Many are a thing of beauty with wonderful photographs, delightful seed histories, and the promise of a new day, a new season, a new beginning.

If you’re new to gardening, I can tell you that there is a reason I call seed catalogs “garden porn.” I doubt I am the only one. I haven’t even put away the 2015 catalogs. They’re all over my home, the nightstand, the coffee table, the dining table … the “library.” I stay up late reading the history of beans; I make my family look through them and make suggestions on things to plant; I study plant heights, thinning distances, nutrition requirements, drought resistance, disease resistance, and days to maturity. I do a little dance every time I find a new catalog in the mailbox. I become a woman possessed.

A few of the 2016 catalogs have already been released. A quick Google search will give you a list of companies putting out seed catalogs. Many of them are free. Some seed companies have a live catalog on their website. One of my all-time favorites is Baker Creek Heirloom Seed online catalog. Talk about some awesome photography! Some, like Seed Saver’s Exchange share wonderful histories of the seeds they offer.

Here are a few more:

High Mowing Organic Seeds

Pinetree Garden Seeds

Park Seed

Bountiful Gardens

Burpee Seeds

Botanical Interests

Annie’s Heirloom Seeds

Kitazawa Seed Company

Seeds of Change

 

Autumn… briefly.

The change in weather has brought changes in the garden. The tomatoes and peppers that languished through the height of the summer have now taken off. I must have a dozen new bushsteak tomatoes now that the weather has cooled and over thirty new cherry tomatoes. The peppers that became few and small through August and September are now flowering and fruiting with abandon. The scraggly looking mint that had to be given a crew cut is now lush and green. Lack of pollinators seems to be a major problem with yield in the garden, but the heat didn’t help anything. Even self-pollinating plants suffered until it cooled. I wish I could be thrilled with all the good stuff growing in the garden this month, but, truth be told, I’m a little pissed about their horrible timing. Our average first frost date here runs about November 26. Is it just me, or does winter sneak up on everyone?

Thinking About Spring

Dreaming of spring
Dreaming of spring

Today I planted a few more cool weather veggies: radishes and carrots and lettuce and turnips and such. I feel a bit foolish, if truth be told. I feel like I’m battening down the hatches against a winter storm while wearing shorts and listening to the refrigerated air kick on again. I have to remind myself that everything is relative at times like this. The laughably mild winter we get is our gift for not dying from heat stroke over the summer. I’m also reminded that I have to make notes for next spring.

Some of the good things I’ll need to repeat next season:

  1. Plant more natives… like cowpeas and okra.
  2. Easy on the high nitrogen fertilizer. Lush foliage is beautiful, but not always the goal. Veggies are the goal! Also, aphids love chewing on fast growing, but not necessarily healthy, plants.
  3. Plant flowers and herbs and anything else that looks yummy to bees and butterflies. I saved some seed from a beautiful flower that attracted tons of butterflies. I don’t know what it is, but it is now labelled “Butterfly Noms.” Maybe I should look into that.  🙂
  4. Replace more of the smaller containers with the largest containers I can find.
  5. Utilize companion planting.
  6. No chemical pesticides! I have a family of anoles and a lot of red wigglers I’ve grown very fond of.
Some things I’ll have to work on next season:
  1. Fertilizer. Containers leach nutrients quickly, especially in the heat. I must remember to regularly and frequently fertilize my plants. Organic fertilizers would be best, but we have to remember the rabbit poop incident of 2014. My fellow apartment dwellers were not happy about that! No harm in light applications of a “complete,” slow-release granular fertilizer…
  2. On the subject of fertilizer, compost is a wonderful thing, but it is heavy and can reduce drainage in potted plants. Think I’ll be looking for some perlite or something to help lighten things up a bit and improve drainage.
  3. Watering. This year I figured I could skip two-a-days during the summer because I had larger containers. Yes… and no. The plants did not seem any worse for wear and I did not have any issues with blossom end rot this year. Funny thing, though, when I pulled some spent plants recently, the roots had grown through the drainage holes and into the ground below, and the soil in the container seemed strangely dry. I thought only worm castings dried to stone. Next season: two-a-days.
  4. Focus. I’m thrilled that I’ve gone from killing all my tomato plants to having moderate success with a few. Next season, I want lots of tomatoes! I don’t want to ever buy another tomato at the grocery store, at least not during the summer. Next season: production!
I can’t wait to see what winter has in store, but I’m already dreaming of spring!

Pretty Things

Malabar Spinach

Warm-weather spinach substitute #2.

You might wonder for a moment about the poor timing of my warm-weather greens posts this week. This is definitely not the time to get anyone excited about planting this stuff, but this has been the best time to take photos!

The cooler weather has made way for the Malabar spinach to flower and produce these dark little berries, or seed.

Malabar spinach, like the Magenta Spreen lambsquarters in the previous post, is not actually a true spinach, but it works well as a substitute. They both thrive in heat and can be eaten both raw and cooked. I am a little biased towards the Malabar spinach, though. This stuff I can eat straight off the vine; it’s so crunchy and clean. It works well in stir fry, too. It actually holds up better than true spinach. It does have a mucilaginous texture somewhat similar to okra, but I never really noticed it when used in stir-fry. When eating it fresh, straight off the vine, it takes about five or six good leaves before I notice it. Doesn’t keep me from continuing to eat it. A Vietnamese neighbor told me that he used it to thicken soups.

A word of warning, though. It really does thrive in the heat. It loves it… and plenty of water. This crazy plant grabbed on to the patio posts and started taking over my neighbors balcony. I’m definitely growing this again next year, so I’m saving the seeds from the little dark berries now. Good stuff!

Warm-Weather Spinach Substitute #1

I haven’t really had too much luck growing spinach in containers. Maybe its another one of those things I underestimated. When I did get a bit growing in the spring, it was quickly destroyed by pests. The few leaves I did harvest and eat were delicious, but I never did get enough to even put together a salad.

A few years back a friend gave me something she called wild spinach and told me to make sure I planted it in the ground. I was a little wary of digging holes in the common areas of my apartment complex, so I gave it a nice five gallon bucket to live in. It was beautiful. It grew to about five feet high, had a stem streaked with red and a purple “powder” on its newest leaves. She explained that it was a spinach substitute, and while the tender leaves were edible, both the taste and texture were less than appealing to me. The powdery feel on the tongue was a bit strange and the flavor was a bit metallic.

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Flowering Magenta Spreen lambsquarters

It took a little research to find what I had in that bucket was lambquarters. It is considered a weed by most standards. It withstands many different climates, it roots deeply, and it self-sows. This particular plant is a semi-wild cultivar of lambsquarters known as Magenta Spreen. Tender, new leaves can used from the plant at any time, but the whole, young plant can be used when it under a foot tall. Alternatively, they can be kept cut back and will continue to grow new, tender foliage.

Maybe I never really gave it a chance, but I did let the thing grow and it hit about five feet tall when it flowered and produced hundreds, if not thousands, of tiny seeds. From my research, I learned that these seeds could be used as a grain and cooked like porridge or turned into flour. I’m fascinated by the possibilities and the resilience of this plant, but I must admit that I’ve not yet tried to use it since the first disagreeable taste test. I saved that seed, though, and a few dropped to the ground and just sprouted where they landed. One of them found a nice spot by a potted plant and enjoyed a nice, consistent watering schedule. The darn thing is now about ten feet tall and has begun to flower. Now I get why one of its common names is Tree Spinach.

It’s beyond time for me to give this plant another chance. Maybe a little porridge this winter? Some baby greens next spring?

Transition

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TAMU Jalapenos

It is trying very hard to be autumn here in south central Texas. We have lovely, cool mornings and warm days here right now. Highs are in the low nineties and when the humidity drops, even that is easily bearable. Who knows? In a couple of weeks, the low may drop below 65°F and we can all break out that one sweater we own.

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Okra

There are changes going on in the garden. The marigolds have had it. The basil is trying to bolt. I’m easily getting two and three okra a day off my one Red Burgundy plant. The drop in temps have revived the peppers and vining tomatoes, and they have begun to flower once again.

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Cowpeas!

Some things have been given new life. Others are done for the season. Some, like the yard-long beans, just keep going and going. The marigolds interplanted with the tomatoes back in March just up and quit on me recently, but I was able to save some seed. I can’t seem to remember what kind they were or if they were a hybrid or not. I guess I will find out next spring. That was easy to do because they called it quits on their own terms. The determinate tomatoes are another story. The cooler weather has caused them to begin to flower again, but none of them seem to set. A quick run on the math tells me that, if they were to set, they may not have time to mature. This is “thinning” at its worst. Do I hang on to the tomato plant with hopes and prayer, or do I yank the thing and make room for something new?

Broccoli
Broccoli

While I go back and forth about that, I went ahead and yanked the runner beans that never really caught on to make room for carrots and radishes. I’m still waiting for evidence of the parsley seed I planted in place of the marigolds, and I’m jammin’ radish seeds anywhere I can find a wee bit of space. I’m trying my hand at collards, kale, and cabbage. The seedlings are looking good and growing well and it looks like I may just have some success with the broccoli I planted.

Cabbage, collards, kale... really!
Cabbage, collards, kale… really!

Right now, I’m just trying to pace myself. I want to just plant everything all at once, but I know if I’m not careful, I may end up eating radishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a week. I have a new fondness for the crisp sweetness of a homegrown radish, but I don’t want to ruin that, so I have to reign myself in. What is making that even more difficult right now is a big box full of seed packets a neighbor gave me. She said she had been admiring my little container garden from afar and when she finally caught me out there watering, she explained that she, too, loved to garden, but was pursuing a graduate degree and didn’t have the time. I can’t wait to show her which of her little seeds have become seedlings now. Hopefully, I’ll have some nice cabbage and lettuce to share with her soon… and carrots and broccoli and radishes!