Sunday, December 21, 2014

Things I May Try in 2015


I have been thinking of some things I may want to do differently in the garden in 2015. I use the word “may” because I reserve the right to bail out on any or all of this. This is not my New Year’s resolution list.


Purchase Onion Plants

The last three years I have been growing storage onions  in my garden. I use seedlings because the results are much better than sets. After all, alliums are biennial and there is a risk with sets that the plants will bolt, plus you are severely limited in your choice of onion varieties. Starting onions from seeds is really not hard. They take a while to germinate and here you have to start them in February, but they do well in cool conditions (the definition of conditions in my house in February with $4 heating oil). But I did manage to do a bad job last year. Trying to plant black seed in black potting mix is difficult, so I just sprinkled the whole packet in a 4” pot. The seedlings were crowded and too difficult to thin, resulting in weak transplants, many of which died from transplant shock.


This year, I am going to try using purchased onion transplants, at least for the yellow and red storage onions. I will still have to start seed for the shallots and specialty onions This is an expensive  proposition, about twice as expensive as purchasing seeds and starting you own. What I am hoping to achieve is a much higher (more and bigger bulbs) and more reliable yield from the same garden space because I will be planting robust and healthy transplants grown by professionals. A lot of seed vendors sell onion plants and most seem to be grown and shipped  by suppliers in Texas (Dixondale Farms being one of the most prominent). And most of those seed vendors get about $15-16 for a bunch of 50-70 plants. Fortunately, Pinetree Seeds in Maine sells two bunches for $15.49 and you can mix and match. So, one bunch of Copra and one of Red Zeppelin for me. One of the many reasons I really like Pinetree.


Total War on Cucumber (and Flea) Beetles

OK, I have had it. This year, once again, my cucumbers were decimated by bacterial wilt spread by cucumber beetles. These pests feed on the leaves of cucumbers and their larvae feed on the roots. The leaf damage is not that bad, and cucumber plants can usually recover. What is worse is the beetles carry bacterial wilt disease in their guts and spread it to the plants. Once infected, the plant wilts and dies in just a couple of days. The little buggers are small and fast, and they like to hang out inside the flowers, so they are difficult to hand pick.


So in 2015 I am going to try using Surround for the cucumbers and eggplant, spread DT on the soil around the plants, and spray weekly with an organic spray like pyrethrin or Spinosad (I usually alternate these). Surround is an interesting material and it will be a challenge to use it. Surround is a finely ground kaolin clay produced in a magnetic centrifuge in Georgia by one company. It’s a patented process using fancy and expensive equipment, so the product is fairly pricey. Both Johnny’s and Fedco carry it, but Fedco is about $5 cheaper for a 25 pound bag. Shipping is another matter so I may try to find a local source.


The way Surround is used is a slurry is made with water and the plants are either dipped in it before transplanting, or you use a sprayer to apply it. I will probably try dipping the transplants and then use a sprayer to cover new foliage and touch up spots that are washed off. The film left by the clay apparently doesn’t affect the plant and transmits light. There are various theories on how it works, such as the beetles don’t see the plants, they don’t like the feel of it, they spend their time cleaning their little feet rather than feeding, but it apparently does work and is used by commercial growers. An option is to mix a pyrethrin with the clay slurry when applying, but there is no evidence that improves effectiveness.


Row cover for Brassicas and Eggplant

Obviously, row cover for brassicas, eggplant and squash makes a lot of sense, given  the plethora of pests they face. I have used squares of the stuff in my square foot garden, supported by arches of plastic tubing. Last year I had access to one of the unused plots in our community garden and reverted back to traditional, in-ground row gardening. I may have that privilege again and want to try planting brassicas and eggplant in-ground, so a row covering makes sense.


I ran across an article on the Grow Abundant Gardens blog with a nifty way to implement a floating row cover. Turns out Johnny’s sells a 10 foot wide Agribon AG-19 in rolls. This is wide enough that if you use, say, 10 foot sections of 1/2 inch plastic conduit as supports, you can create a tunnel high enough to grow broccoli, Brussels sprouts, eggplant and summer bush squash under it. The row cover helps with cool Spring weather for the eggplant and squash and repels the nasties for anything you plant under it. I’m going to give this a try.


Grow Peas on a Trellis

I am getting tired of the results achieved from my patented technique for growing snow and snap peas in a block. I have tried to select varieties that are short vined, such as Oregon Sugar Pod II. I plant them in a block surrounded by a low fence and hope they support each other as they grow. Good theory, but in practice they usually grow taller than the catalog claims and flop over. I get a big mess and it is hard to find the peas to harvest them


So next year I am going to try growing them on a trellis. In fact, they are going to get the 8 foot trellis I grew the Musica beans on. I think I will select a tall variety like Green Beauty from Fedco, which is supposed to grow to 8 foot and produce heavily. Instead of an occasional handful for a stir fry, I envision bags and bags of snow peas in the freezer next summer.



This is a topic somewhat new to me and big enough that I may save it for another post. Obviously, if we are eating our own garden produce, we want food that is “nutrient dense” and healthful. That’s why we garden. A key to producing nutrient dense food is having garden soil that has the right mix of macro and micro nutrients. According to Mel Bartholomew, all you need is a trowel full of “perfect” compost per square to produce healthful food. Of course, no one can define what “perfect” compost is and even Mel himself has admitted that sometimes supplements help. For example, he acknowledges that broccoli and beets are boron dependent and supplying a boron boost can increase productivity and eliminate hollow stems. I will write more later but mineralization will get increased attention from me in 2015.


Tomato choices

As I have said, I had access to an extra plot in the community garden and planted a double row of tomatoes. I am more careful what I plant in my square foot garden because of its limited space. So I took advantage of the additional space and planted some heirlooms. I planted four Brandywine, four Pineapple, and a Cherokee Purple, all heirlooms. At first, results were great and I got a heavy set of fruit, but they took their good old time ripening. Unfortunately, by late summer, most of the fruit cracked and anthracnose rot infected the cracks before the fruits ripened. I lost a large amount of fruit because of that. So next year I will put a bigger emphasis on selecting full size tomatoes that are more crack resistant. It doesn’t matter what the flavor is if the fruit rots before you can eat it.




Friday, December 5, 2014

Thanksgiving Turkey

The last few weeks have been pretty hectic for me. The garden is mostly crispy critters so there have been no harvests to report, unless you want me to report my failure to completely finish tidying it up before cold weather. I figure that’s what early spring days are for. Also, my daughter travelled home for American Thanksgiving, but a week early. Since Dad is supposed to pick up the airfare, a week early meant tickets half the price of Thanksgiving week, so fine with with me. And since Kate has to approve the menu, I was happy when she approved trying to smoke a turkey in my new smoker.


I got the idea from Meathead Goldwyn’s website, Amazing Ribs. I have always liked smoked turkey. We used to order a corn cob and maple smoked ham and smoked turkey breast from Harrington’s in Vermont every year. The difference in this case was the turkey would be fresh and not cured. The idea of smoking the turkey was attractive, since it would free up the oven for other things.




I purchased a 16 pound fresh turkey and prepped it Meathead’s way by removing skin flaps top and bottom and the tail and wing tips. In the cavity I placed the peel of an orange, some garlic cloves, half an onion, celery leaves, and some fresh sage leaves. The turkey is not trussed so you get good air flow around and through the entire bird. It was not brined but was sprinkled with kosher salt before putting it in the smoker.




The  giblets (minus the liver), the skin, tail, wing tips and excess fat were placed in a disposable aluminum pan that functions as the drip pan and water bath for the smoker. I also added an onion, a carrot, a celery stalk with leaves, fresh sage and thyme to the pan, then poured in a quart carton of turkey stock.





The turkey was placed in the center of the smoker with the drip pan below it. The drip pan keeps the turkey moist, regulates the temperature, and catches the turkey drippings. It also becomes the base for the gravy when the turkey is finished, so that frees up a burner on the stove usually devoted to making stock for the gravy.




The turkey is smoked at 325 °F for 3-3.5 hours, about the same as an oven, so this is a hot smoke. Turkey doesn’t have all the collagen of pork or beef so there is no need to go “low and slow” to break down the collagen. I went light on the smoke with just a small handful of apple wood chips used at the beginning of the smoke. Temperatures were monitored with a Maverick remote  temperature probe, one in the breast of the turkey set for a 165 °F alarm, and one clipped to the rack under the turkey to monitor smoker temperature.


The day was cool, about 40 °F, but very blustery. The temperature was not a problem but the wind made it very challenging. I had the propane control on high the whole time. The smoker is dual fuel and I had fortunately added a generous amount of lump charcoal to the charcoal tray. Even with the two heat sources, I had wild fluctuations in the smoker temperature with wind gusts, up and down 20-30 degrees at a time. The alarms from the Maverick were driving me crazy at times.




So with things hellsapoppin inside preparing all the sides, when it came time to bring the turkey inside, I forgot I was supposed to photograph the event. Here’s the turkey after I already carve one side of it. It was a beautiful color and the aroma was fantastic. The light apple wood smoke was perfect and not too strong. The skin was crispy and the meat was still very moist. Everyone really enjoyed it and I may do it again next year.




The drip pan was drained into a saucepan to turn the juices into gravy and the disposable pan was just tossed in the trash (actually it was cleaned and tossed into the recycle bin). It made a terrific gravy. This was a great way to do the turkey. The only cleanup was the rack the turkey sat on in the smoker. No roaster pan to wash.


Hope you had a great Thanksgiving, if you celebrate it. While everyone was running around shopping Thanksgiving week and cooking on Thursday, we were finishing off leftovers. And Kate got her flight out on Tuesday, just before the usual Wednesday snow storm that fouls up all east coast travel on the busiest travel day of the year. Thanksgiving day we went to the movies and then grilled some nice steaks for dinner. A very pleasant two weeks.

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