Monday, September 29, 2014

Tasting in the Garden: Focus on Tomatoes!

Sunday evening we met in the garden for a Tasting showcasing our tomatoes and continuing to experience and taste our melons.  So much bounty and generosity from nature, from our gardeners, and from the man who provides our tomato plants to us each spring... Bob.  His wife confided that he plays classical music for them and touches each plant every day while he is nurturing them in preparation for planting in the garden.  I don't think I have ever seen healthier tomato plants anywhere and now I know the secret to providing strong young plants for gardeners.  Perhaps we should consider a stereo system for the garden????

But the food...  where all the energy in our plants ends up.  It was spectacular as always.  What a wonderful group of cooks we have in our community.  Starting from one end of the groaning table to the other we had:  stuffed tomatoes, dried tomatoes on mozzarella toasts, the gracefully aging unripened nectarine chutney and Santa Rosa plum compote, a medley of tomatoes, peaches, peppers, and who knows what else (cook's secret!) in a salsa/chutney, melons freshly harvested from the garden, oven roasted parsnip 'fries', a gratin of potatoes with kale (for recipe, click HERE), oven roasted Roma tomatoes, fresh cherry tomatoes with roasted Shishito peppers, savory tomato pie, blue Italian plum cobbler, fresh pesto and baguette, a sweet tomato sorbet that didn't harden (for recipe, click HERE - but either the tomatoes need to cook down a bit more or someone ... that would be me... didn't leave the ice cream maker freezer base in the freezer long enough), and melon lassi (recipe link available through the melon blog post).

I could probably go on for pages about the specific taste delights of each recipe but instead I'll simply remind you that a picture is worth a thousand words so here is a novella.

Yellow tomatoes cooking down for the sorbet

Stuffed tomatoes & dried tomatoes on mozzarella toast.

Oven-roasted parsnip 'fries' and fresh melon
Fresh tomatoes with Shishito peppers;
oven-roasted Romas

Potato and kale gratin
Blue Italian plum cobbler 

Pesto made from garden basil 

A late breaking addition, we harvested one of our ripening pomegranates.  In a way, those bitter sweet seeds summarize what's best about our Tastings.  Not only do we enjoy the fruits of our labor through the dishes we prepare at home but we also often turn directly to the garden and harvest something to eat fresh, in the moment.  Sometimes it's a freshly concocted salsa.  Sometimes it's fruit warm from the summer sun on the trees.  And sometimes it's one of our abundant and ever-volunteering melons.  But, I still haven't talked anyone into trying some of our ever-present bugs...

Although the days are getting cooler and the plants are yielding their last for this season, our Tastings will transmute into the winter potlucks of our business meetings.  The socializing and the enjoyment of good food that make our garden a community garden will continue year round, as always.

Links last checked on 29 September 2014.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Tending the soil with winter crops

Winter crops are planted to replenish and rest the soil in between growing seasons.  Sometimes called ‘green manure’, these cover crops can also be planted between crop rotations during a (long) growing season.  The plants function to add organic materials to the soil, particularly nitrogen, and to loosen and aerate the soil. As you might imagine, these cover crops need to be removed from the row before they go to seed, and several weeks before the bed is replanted (to allow time for breakdown of any plant matter left in the row.)

Turning under the cover crop can be done several ways. First, the plants are cut close to soil level. You can then save the cuttings for the compost or set them aside for use  as mulch once you have finished preparing the bed.

The remaining stubble can then be chopped and turned under.

For gardeners who follow a no-till system, the vegetable seeds can simply be planted in between the stubble. The new seedling roots will break down the cover crop root clumps over time.

If planting between the stubble doesn't work for you, a slightly more elaborate no-till method is to smother the stubble.  To do this, the row is first mulched (a good use for the plants you just cut!) and then covered with the gardener's friend, black plastic.  (According to the source blog - link below - you can even skip cutting the crop to the soil line and go straight for the smother.)

Allow at least two or three weeks for the black plastic to work its magic before you plant the vegetable seeds.

Some ideas for the cover crop are given below and are taken directly from the source material.

Hardy legumes

These nitrogen-fixing crops provide a fertilizer as well as organic matter. Planted in fall, they grow slowly until late winter when growth speeds up. Legume crops may not mature until May in some regions. Cut down these cover crops in spring before they go to flower, then till them under.

Hairy vetch (Vicia villosa): Grows to 2 feet high; hardy to -15° F. Hairy vetch is considered the hardiest annual legume. Vetch tolerates poor soil, and matures late. Sow 1 to 2 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

Field pea (Pisum arvense and P. sativus): Grows 6 inches to several feet tall. Field peas are hardy to 10 to 20°F. ‘Austrian Winter’ pea is low growing and late maturing. ‘Magnus’ grows to 5 feet. Sow 2 to 4 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

Berseem clover (Trifolium alexandrinum): Grows 1 to 2 feet high. Berseem clover is hardy to 20° F. Produces high amounts of nitrogen. Sow 2 pounds per 1,000 square feet.
Crimson clover (T. incarnatum): Grows 18 inches high, and is hardy to 10° F. Crimson clover matures late and fixes less nitrogen than other clovers. Sow 1/2 to 2 pounds per 1,000 square feet.  If allowed to go to seed, Crimson clover can become an invasive weed.


Cover crops from the grass family grow quickly, tolerate cold, and improve the structure of compacted soils. Thickly sown grasses add increased organic matter in comparison to legumes.
Grasses also control erosion which is a real benefit in wet regions. Grasses do not have the benefit of fixing nitrogen as legumes do. Annual grass cover crops are cut down or mowed in spring before seeds set, and then tilled under.

Annual ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum): Grows 2 to 3 feet high; hardy to -20° F. Fastgrowing and tolerates flooding. The seeds are inexpensive, and the grass is very hardy. Ryegrass can become weedy. Sow 1/2 to 2 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

Winter rye (Secale cereale): Grows 4 to 5 feet tall; hardy to -30° F. Best grass for cold winter climates: tolerant of low fertility, acidic soils. Sow 2 to 3 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

Oats (Avena sativa): Grows 2 to 3 feet tall: hardy to 10 to 20° F. Produces the least organic matter of grasses, but is tolerant of wet soils. Oats usually succumb to winterkill, but the residue is still beneficial to the soil. Sow 2 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

Barley (Hordeum vulgare): Grows 2 to 3 feet tall; hardy 0 to 10° F. Fast maturing and tolerant of dry and saline soils: intolerant of acidic soil. Sow 2 to 3 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

A common mix offered by seed companies is hairy vetch and annual rye. The vetch fixes atmospheric nitrogen, while the rye uses leftover nitrogen. Nitrogen from the decomposing vetch will cause the rye to decompose more quickly and not tie up nitrogen as long.

To plant cover crops, sow seeds at least 30 days before the first expected fall frost date in your growing region. For cover crops that are only marginally hardy in your area, push back the sowing date to 60 days before the first frost. The more established a cover crop is before winter the more likely it will overwinter successfully.

The information for this post came from two posts of a single blog:

Click HERE for more information on the basics of winter crops to plant and why.

Click HERE for more information on turning winter crops under.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Melons in the garden

On the 12th, we had a Tasting in the Garden featuring different preparation methods for some of the volunteer melons we have in the garden.  When you're harvesting five or six pound mystery melons every few days, you reach a point where melons for breakfast just doesn't sound fun any more.

The volunteers come from a variety of sources:  seeds dropped in the garden either from fruit rotting on the vine, or from previous year tastings, or from garden-grown or bought melon that composted incompletely.  Too many volunteers of anything is a sign that your compost didn't get hot enough...

Many of the volunteers are bland-tasting.  And many experienced gardeners will shake their heads solemnly and tell you that it's the result of cross-pollination, generally with a cucumber.  The plants, you see, all belong to the cucurbit family, which includes squash, gourds, melons, and cucumbers.

While it is completely true that squash bugs, in a pinch, will migrate among the vines quite nicely, cross-pollination is a different matter.  As it happens, cross-pollination will only occur within a species of the family.  Bottom line for melon growers:  cross-pollination will only occur between other melons and Armenian cucumbers.  And the fruit will only be affected if the cross-pollinated melon seed is planted the next year.

Two succinct descriptions may be found at the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Program
(click HERE)
and at Walter Reeve's website (click HERE).
And, if you believe Google, there are another 26,000 possible articles on the topic of melon cross-pollination so you certainly don't have to take my word for it!

So, if it isn't cross-pollination, what is it that makes a melon bland?  According to the Iowa State article, it's usually unfavorable weather or soil conditions.

And, if you're now looking at 20 pounds or so of bland melons (or even five pounds), what can you do with them?

The Huffington Post had already done much of the legwork for finding non-sliced-melon-for-breakfast recipes.  If you want to see the full range of recipes to which they provided links, click HERE.

Melon bruschetta

Melon and peach salad
Melon agua fresca

Melon ice cream

Among other delights we sampled at our tasting were a melon bruschetta with pancetta and mozzarella.  And of course, lots of that garden staple - basil.  Because the melon would make the bread soggy, we served it in a bowl with the toasted bread on the side.  The melon and peach salad also featured peaches from our orchard mixed with mozzarella and basil.  Both recipes used balsamic vinegar.  Although I do think it's cheating, I reduced my balsamic vinegar to a rich, thick syrup rather than buying a $200 bottle.  Just saying.

We also sampled a melon lassi and an agua fresca, both of which were taste treats.

And finally, the piece de resistance, ice cream.  Made on the spot in one of those little hand cranked machines.  All you have to do is remember to freeze the bowl overnight and you can have fresh, home-made ice cream whenever you want.

Links checked 17 September 2014.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Peach Recipes

The green scarab beetles are racing us to see who gets more of our nectarines, peaches, and plums.  I'd show some photos of the damage they inflict but I want to post some recipes one of our members has found and, well, the bugs on/in peaches are not appetizing, to say the least.

So.  On to the recipes.  These were provided to me as copies of newspaper-type articles but I've been able to track down some internet versions for you (so that I don't violate copyright rights and otherwise make original authors unhappy.)  Links to the actual recipes are provided.

The first is a Navajo-Style Peach Crisp, which came highly recommended.
Here's a link to the recipe on the Delicious Living website.

The newspaper version had permission information for the recipe from a cookbook entitled "With a Measure of Grace, The Story and Recipes of a Small Town Restaurant."

It turns out that the book was written by the owners/chefs (and everything else most likely) of a small, very successful restaurant Hell's Backbone Grill and Farm.  Despite being located in a very small (population 180) and remote (Boulder, Utah) town, the restaurant is "highly acclaimed and award-winning."  If you are stricken by wanderlust, it certainly seems like it would be a good stop on your travels.  And, for those who aren't wandering far from home these days, an internet visit would be a worthwhile trip.

A second recipe, from the New York Times, is a galette suitable for "the summer fruit of your choice".  The recipe is also suitable for vegetables.  A galette is a sort of free-form tart or pie that is rolled out, shaped, filled, and baked without the benefit or constriction of a pie pan.

For those who prefer watching to reading, Melissa Clark of the New York Times demonstrates the recipe with tips for the general technique here.
And, for those of you who prefer reading, you can find the printed recipe here.

Links last checked and found to be valid on 12 September 2014.