We've got a few "tassel-ears" growing in our cornfield. A tassel-ear is a small, fully-formed ear of corn growing out of the top of the plant, without any husk to cover it. Looks a little wierd, but apparently isn't that unusual. You can find out more about tassel-ears here: http://corn.osu.edu/newsletters/2012/2012-24/201ctassel-ears201d-in-corn. I'm guessing some bird's going to be real happy to find it.

Why We Grow Soybeans - 2012 edition

I picked 107 pods from this one soy plant - that's about 321 delicious little edamame beans. I noticed that the roots of this plant were particularly loaded with nodules of nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Examining other plants, it was consistent that the largest plants with the highest yield had more nodules on their roots. Do more nodules make the plant healthier, or do healthier plants support more nodules?

How does your garden squash grow?

Squash growth, 4 daysWe know that summer squash grow so fast that if you miss one during harvest you'll find a Moby Zuke in a few days. But I'm a left-brained geek who likes numbers, so I planted some reference sticks next to a young Zephyr on Saturday, August 4 and checked it four days later on August 8. It had just about doubled in length and more than tripled in girth, well on its way to blimpness. That's how fast a summer squash can grow. I picked it immediately before it could scare any dogs or small children.

Onions can walk...?!? Whaaaaat!?!

Another very interesting plant that I want to recommend that we grow next season is the Egyptian Walking Onion.  They are also commonly called tree onions, top onions, or topsetting onions (Allium cepa var. proliferum ).

A field of Walking Onions 


Bulblets forming at the tops of the stems

This hardy perennial onion, unlike most other types of alliums, grows bulblets (small bulbs) at the tops of its leaves.  These bulblets can be eaten (they're very mild), or they can be planted just like onion sets to produce more walking onions.  The term "walking" refers to the fact that if the bulblets are left on the plant, they eventually get big and heavy enough to cause the stems to bend to the point where the bulblets come into contact with the soil, at which point the bulblets take root and start new plants.  Thus, these alliums can "walk" their way across your garden (if you let them).

For more on this amazing and alluring allium:





More on fermenting

Just like my Sue, my sister of the soil, I've just made my first-ever batch of sauerkraut, which spent four days on the counter before moving to the well-known "cool, dry place," which in my house is the fridge. Its base was Napa cabbage from the garden, and the secondary ingredients included both carrot and parsnip from the same source.

Honestly, I don't really like sauerkraut — it's "sauer!" — but I had my reasons to try it. First, is the locavore reason — what good is a bumper crop if your only choices are to give it to the neighbors or put it into the compost? 

Secondly, I was writing a story about natural fermentation, the centuries-old method of food preservation, for the Boston Globe, and wanted to have a feel for what I was talking about. It's one of the privileges of journalism, to learn and experience more than I would if I didn't have a need to know.

Anyway, the story was published this morning. Though it didn't make the print version, the online presentation includes a tips box from Dan Rosenberg, founder and co-owner of Real Pickles, a Greenfield, Mass., company makes about a dozen products using only local produce and natural fermentation.

If remember to, I'm going to bring my kraut to the garden Saturday morning for a tasting. C'mon by!

My experiments with fermented foods: the cabbage isn't "going bad", it's getting better and better

I was intrigued by a recent Terry Gross interview with Sandor Ellix Katz about his book "The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World".  Katz explains that fermented foods and beverages have been prepared by humans for over 8000 years.  Fermentation is the process whereby cultures of micro-organisms (usually bacteria or yeast), often microbes already naturally present in the food or surrounding environment, are allowed to establish and grow in the food, enhancing flavor and, Katz believes, providing numerous health benefits.  (Our own bodies normally contain vast -- VAST -- numbers of living bacteria and other microorganisms, known as our "microbiome", though this fascinating topic is way beyond the scope of this post.)  As they grow in the fermenting foods, the microorganisms digest carbohydrates and produce byproducts that impart characteristic flavors.  (See "glycolysis" in your biochemistry texts.)  For example, both wine and beer are fermented beverages, with sugars converted by yeast to alcohol (and carbon dioxide).  In the case of some other fermented foods, lactic acid is the product contributing to the characteristic flavor and texture.  Lactic acid gives pickles and sauerkraut their sharp sourness, and the extent of acidity can be controlled, for example, by moving the product to the refrigerator to slow bacterial growth. 


In his book, Katz cites an estimate that up to one third of all foods eaten by people worldwide is fermented!  Some of the most obvious are the foods and beverages mentioned above, and yogurt.  Less obvious are cheese, coffee and bread.  Think of those beautiful, strong-flavored ("tres fort") French cheeses laced with colorful, happily metabolizing molds.  In bread, the yeast also generate ethanol and carbon dioxide, and the carbon dioxide bubbles help the dough to rise.  Katz's interview made me realize that I already use fermentation routinely in some of my cooking, for example, in sourdough bread.  I knew already that the sourdough starter that's been brewing in my refrigerator for well over a year is a living culture  -- one that seems to rebel by giving me misshapen bread loaves if I ignore it for too many weeks.  But, I hadn't quite appreciated its connection to beer, wine or sauerkraut.

Yeast breads are good examples of fermented foods, since the carbon dioxide, produced as the yeast metabolize carbohydrates in the mixture, causes the dough to rise.  Sourdough breads, like this one, rely even more on fermentation, since the sourdough starter itself is a simmering culture.  



So, I decided to try making other fermented foods, inspired by vegetables growing in our Robbins Farm garden.  Katz told Terry Gross that sauerkraut is the simplest fermented food for the beginner.  Plus, beautiful fresh cabbage is available in our garden and in local farms right now.  I followed the basic procedure suggested by Katz in the radio piece.  Essentially, veggies of choice are salted to extract their juices, these juices are squeezed from the vegetables and they are allowed to ferment in their own juices in a sealed jar.  Katz advises not adding more water unless it is needed to cover the vegetables, because this will dilute the flavor.  I did need to add a little water (he said the vegetables should be covered with liquid) but it did taste pretty good, seasoned only with salt and black pepper.  I used fresh green cabbage, scallions and carrots.  (Because of availability, only the scallions were from our Garden, while the other vegetables were from Busa Farm.)  As Katz had promised, it was a simple dish to make.


My first (only, so far) attempt at sauerkraut, using locally grown green cabbage, scallions, and carrots, and the guidelines described by Katz in his radio interview.  


Emboldened by my relative success, I decided to next try making kimchee (or kimchi), the Korean staple that happens to be one of my favorite foods.  There are probably as many different kimchee recipes as there are for wines and cheeses.  Katz didn't offer a kimchee recipe in his book but I found a recipe online for "Basic Nappa Cabbage Kimchi (Kimchee)" that looked about right.  This time, I was able to use nappa cabbage from our Garden.  I followed the recipe closely, but used half of all ingredients since it was written for 2 lbs of nappa cabbage.  Consult the recipe for further details, but essentially, I began by washing and cutting the cabbage and soaking it in salted water for about 24 hrs, then rinsing and draining it, squeezing out the excess liquid.  This leaves it somewhat wilted in appearance.  Regarding the other ingredients, I first searched a few Asian markets in the Chinatown area (near where I work) but was concerned that the ingredients, especially the fish sauce and red pepper powder, were not necessarily the Korean style.  So, I headed to the amazing, though somewhat overwhelming, H. Mart in Burlington.  Here the selection is great, with separate sections for Korean sauces and other items.  (And, as it happens, H. Mart carries many types of prepared kimchee, sold in jars in the refrigeration cases, or in bulk by the pound.)  To my surprise, even the daikon radish was available in both Chinese and Korean variations, so I took the Korean one.  Both are plump and white, but the Korean had a greenish color at the base.  Again, the red pepper powder selection was huge, with coarse and fine options and many different brands.  I took the one that said "For Kimchi" on it, a coarse grind.  While it was produced in China, it was packaged in Korea and, of course, the "For Kimchi" label gave me comfort that it was the right kind. 



Shown here are several of the ingredients I used for kimchee.  Clockwise from front:  Daikon radish ("Korean" according to H. Mart), wild salted shrimp, Korean style fish sauce, Napa cabbage from the Garden (after soaking in salt, draining and squeezing out excess liquid), Coarse ground red pepper powder (marked "For Kimchi"), ginger root.  Not shown:  scallions


Preparation in progress, prior to adding cabbage and fish sauce to pack into jars.




As I write this, my 1 qt jar of kimchee, after brewing in the basement (a cool, dark place) for a little over 24 hrs, is now fermenting in the refrigerator. Before transferring it to the refrigerator, I opened the lid to release the gases; and, there were gases so we're on the right track!.  To be continued......







Additional tips from my friends who have experience making kimchee: Val Hays has used, and recommends, another Kimchee recipe by David Lebovitz. While similar to the one I used, it does not have the salted shrimp, making it a good vegetarian option. MJ Keeler suggests letting the kimchee ferment in the refrigerator for at least a week, rather than the three days (minimum) suggested by the recipe. As I post this, it's been in the refrigerator for three days and we haven't tasted it yet.


Update:  We have eaten some of this.  It is okay, but I am not thrilled with it.  The cabbage is a little tough, and the taste a little bitter.  Today (August 11) I got another half cabbage, shared with Dick.  I am going to try the other kimchee recipe in this post (David Lebovitz).  However, I am slightly concerned that it is our nappa cabbage that is bitter or tough.  We will see.....

p.s. Gardeners:  I have plenty of the red pepper powder and salted shrimp, as well as extra 1 qt canning jars.  Let me know if you want some to try this on your own.

Okra and Air Conditioning

I don't have air-conditioning at home.  Some summers, there are a handful of days where, to sleep at night, I have to run a fan drafting air directly over me from toe to head.  Last summer I did, but this summer not yet.

Last summer, our "dwarf" okra grew over six feet tall.  This summer it seems resigned to at most two feet.  I think it's the lack of truly hot nights that has held back the okra:  it just hasn't triggered it's growth spurt.  It's already beginning to flower, so I think now it's too late.

Plants can "observe" their environment, and integrate (sum up and average) such things as daylight and temperature, by accumulating certain chemicals.  When they build up enough, that triggers a change.  Quite possibly, okra is observing the average temperature, and nightly lows, in order to decide whether to switch to giant growth mode.

So next year, let's hope I have a few insufferably hot nights in July, so our smart okra decides it's okay to be a giant!



Scheduling with a Garden Gantt Chart

Garden Gantt Chart
We're growing 44 crops in our 2,000 square foot garden this year, each with its own ideal growing schedule in our area. Fortunately, we've also been recording our experiences with these crops. (Our 2010, 2011 and 2012 Crops Lists record our planting and first harvest dates.) Now it's time to put all that information to work.
Our first ever Garden Gantt Chart is an attempt to give us a visual, week-by-week schedule for our crops. In the spring, the chart will help us determine which garden beds need to be prepared and planted each week. In summer, it will be helpful to make sure we start our late-season seedlings on time.
Multiple plantings of short-season crops (such as Lettuce and Radishes) and space-saving scheduling of different crops in a single bed (such as Peas and Pole Beans) are reflected in the chart. We've also included times for starting our own seedlings indoors (something we hope to do more of next year).
The chart is still officially in the draft stage. We'll be adjusting the information as we move through this year's gardening season. The removal (or last harvest) for the crops wasn't recorded, so information for later in the season is a bit speculative. Look for a finished version in late fall.
Please note: Though this is our third year of gardening this space, it's our first year of early spring gardening. Planting was delayed our first two years by the need to build the garden from the ground up in April. Permission to leave the fence and garden beds in place last winter allowed our first on-time start this year.

Hornworm returns

HornwormSphinx moth

A sphinx moth has dropped by the garden once again. That's the parent of the hornworm caterpillar Lisa found munching last week on one of our green tomatoes.

The hornworm looks like something out of a medieval fairytale. It's bright green with slanted white stripes and dark eye-spots on its sides and a curved black horn extending out from its rear end.

Because their coloring is so close to that of the plants they visit, hornworms can be hard to spot at first, clinging as they do to the underside of the branches they defoliate. But once you see one, you think you're looking at a miniature monster.

A hornworm brigade attacked our tomatoes two summers ago. Fortunately, however, right behind them came a flight of parasitic wasps launching a counterattack of their own. They stopped most of the hornworms in their tracks, but not before the little monsters had stripped bare the tops of several tomato plants.

So far this summer, we've spotted just one horn worm, and no parasitic wasps.

Curiously enough, this time the hornworm did not go for the tomato plant's leaves. This time Lisa found him munching on a tomato.


Top 5 Things to Know About Corn Pollination

Most of the corn plants in our Three Sisters bed have reached the tassel stage, and some of them have also reached the silk stage.  This is important, because corn has both male and female parts -- that is, the silk and the tassel. 

Alan was nice enough to snap this photo of the golden and red tassels formed on our popcorn plants:

Proper soil moisture, as well as air temperature, are both critical to having both the tassel and silk appear at the same time, and therefore create the proper circumstances for successful pollination.  Many of our crop plants are pollinated by insects, (e.g., bees, wasps, moths and ground beetles), but corn is different.  The corn plant depends on wind to carry the pollen from a tassel to the silk strands that form at the top of each potential ear of corn.

For more info, click here for the Top 5 Things to Know about Corn Pollination.

A Quinoa Recipe for Fresh Summer Corn: Definitely a "Keeper"!


When sweet corn is in season -- as it is right now -- we eat a lot of it.  Usually, we are corn purists: just boil it quickly, sprinkle it with salt or Campmix, and eat it right off the cob.  Yesterday, though, I wanted to try something different with our sweet corn, fresh from Busa's Farm.  (In the Robbins garden, the corn in our Three Sisters plot is a decorative popping corn so we can't use it for this recipe.).   With the corn, I bought a bunch of gigantic, freshly picked scallions, also grown at Busa's. 

The recipe, Quinoa and Fresh Corn with Scallions is from Deborah Madison's "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone".  (Highly recommended book, by the way!)  A photo of Deborah's recipe is shown, but I varied it slightly.  I used more vegetables:  5 ears of corn and 3 of the huge scallions.  Instead of the Tbsp butter or canola oil, I used 3 Tbsp Extra Virgin olive oil and 1 tsp butter.  I also sauteed the corn and scallions longer than the recipe recommends, til the scallions were wilted.  I used an organic tricolor quinoa from Trader Joes. 

I thought this would be good, but didn't think it would be SO good.  John (who is really into corn in its "purist" preparation and also does not get very excited about some of the grains I like) loved it!  We didn't even add the cheese that the recipe suggests -- it was delicious all by itself, seasoned with salt and pepper.  We had it as a side dish with grilled fish.

By the way, the beautiful bowl in the photos was made by my friend Amy Goldstein, at Mudflat Studio.  

A Day in the Garden

It started cloudy, but as gardeners arrived, the sun came out in full force.  Despite being past 9AM, the far left corner still had a bit of shade from the tall trees at the edge of the Park.

A white board of to-do activities, prepared by the planners, organizes our work.  It's harvesting time!  Lush eggplant of both the long Asian and the fat Italian varieties are joyfully picked.  Bush beans of all three colors --green, yellow, purple-- are available, but the soybeans are not yet ready.  Some summer squash, several cucumbers.  A debate ensues over how much lettuce to pick, as what we may leave behind may bolt or turn bitter in the hot weather.  Our next generation of seedlings were only planted last week, so are not ready for transplant to take the place of the picked lettuce.  We also planted more lettuce today.  Collard greens are plentifully abundant, although many gardeners prefer the swiss chard.

There is much promise of more to come.  The tall corn displays purple and golden tassels.  Immature pumpkins and watermelons hide in the trellis of leaves.  We added more support (netting them with plastic mesh) to some of them.  The winter squash has plenty of flowers, and the Jerusalem artichokes are blooming.  The sunflowers seemed to have shaken off the early-season leaf eaters, and are climbing high.  And even the weeds are prospering, encroaching from the paths even as the vegetables encroach onto the paths.  We'll have to do something about that.

We applied a spray of a small amount of potassium bicarbonate mixed with water to the squash and watermelon plants.  Unlike the last two years, we've seen no mildew, so getting an early start at prevention seems to have worked.  We did a pH test of the soil near the tomatoes, and added some lime.  We're watching closely for signs of blossom end-rot.

Given yesterday's rain, the compost was deemed too wet to sift and extract, even though one pile is clearly ready.  Instead, we turned both piles, to feed them air.

Water, water, water, says one of the garden planners, who says the fruiting plants (e.g. tomatoes and eggplants) especially want it.  No one saw any pests, like the tomato horn worm of last week, and we have some bees buzzing around our flowers.

Not everything picked is 100% perfect.  One tomato did not pass the eat-me test.  Some parsnips decided to stop growing down after they encountered some rocks.

The biggest surprise of the day was the lack of visitors.  Normally we get about twenty, divided between adults and children.

As the white board gets all checked off, people gather for tea, and we start the divvy-up process, a mix today of some things in piles and other things (like greens) taken in turns.  Herbs like rosemary and chives are taken separately by those who want them.

As we finish near Noon, the sun decides to go behind the clouds again.

Our raised bed

When we expanded the garden between years one and two, we added a parcel with a drop in elevation that was evident the day we paced out what our request to the Rec department would be.

It turns out that the drop is about 16 inches, as measured early this season by Alan Jones and I (mostly Alan). We weren’t seeking data for its own purpose, but to assess how high to stack stones to make a level bed in our southeast corner.

We found the rocks, it should come as no surprise, while double-digging other beds (which may well be my next blog-post topic). Just for this one bed, whose walls fade away to nothing about two-thirds up the slope, we used not only most of the big rocks we excavated this year, but reclaimed some we’d relocated along the park perimeter.

The stacking is as rudimentary (skill-less) as you can imagine. Steven Lee and I put the biggest rocks in the corners, the next largest along the bottom row, and for the rest, tried to match shapes that “interlocked” as best we could. We can say that, so far, the rocks are still standing.

One reason we wanted to try the raised bed is that last year, downhill flow during a rainstorm actually washed away some garlic we’d planted. By making a level planting field, we thought could mitigate, or redirect, any such future torrents. And, it looks nice, in a rustic, New England sort of way.



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