Thursday, September 24, 2009

How To Pick a Watermelon

“Ha!” is probably what you’re thinking. To pick a watermelon, all you do is find a ripe one and pull it off of its vine. Trust me, it’s not that easy.

This year, for the first time in my life I planted two watermelon vines. I watched them grow all season (and invade my backyard lawn). Delightedly, I saw that each vine had one watermelon fruit on it. I was sure to water the watermelon vines when the weather was dry (or at least beg my husband to do so). Then came the conundrum. When to pick the fruit?

Of course, I had no idea when I planted the vines or how long my particular plants took until harvest. My best-laid plans of a detailed garden diary were long forgotten by now. I was faced with two tiny green watermelons and no pick date.

Hmm? I could knock on the fruit to see whether they would give a hollow ring or a dull thud. However, even if they gave me a certain sound, I wasn’t sure what the correct ripeness sound even would be.

I feared picking them too soon lest the watermelons not be ripe enough and all my efforts in raising them would be in vain. Like with most other things in my life, I procrastinated. I watched the watermelons, but they oddly did not seem to be increasing in size. Still not sure what to do, I waited some more.

Today however, while walking through my garden, I freaked. The watermelons leaves were gone! The stems were gone! What happened to my melons?! I searched around among the larger leaves (as they had been growing into my pumpkin vines). Sure enough, I found two small watermelons looking as green and cute as they had always been. However, their leaves and stems were quite dead. Guess what? I picked the watermelons.

I brought them inside, washed the outside of both, and took a knife to the first one. Inside it was bright red with a gazillion seeds. The true test of a watermelon? It’s the taste. I took a small bite (and I mean small as each of the watermelons only had four-inch diameters!). It was sweet. My discovery? That’s how to pick a water melon.

Monday, August 31, 2009

An Abundant Harvest

The true pleasure of vegetable gardening comes in late summer when produce is ripening in its greatest abundance. The tomatoes I eagerly await seem to be multiplying faster than I can cope with them. No complaints here. My husband makes a mean salsa, although that also has me eating more tortilla chips than my waistline can usually handle. Oh, well.

I’ve noticed that my cucumbers, fully developed, are trying to play hide-and-seek with me. They ripen but hide themselves away under large green leaves in order for me not to find them. Imagine my surprise when my husband found two fully developed cucumbers that I hadn’t even noticed. Generally that would be okay, but these were the English type. Each was about 14 inches long. Picking them was no treat either. Although I cut them from the vine with scissors, they tried their hardest to poke me with their sharp spines (and succeeded). Ah, nature!

The basil is great this year. It’s growing the right size in the right amount. Every so often, when I’m in the mood for pesto, I have just what I need to make a nice pasta dish for my family.

Corn always baffles me. I never know when to harvest it. I’ve learned that it should be picked when the silk turns completely brown. I’m always afraid that it will be too soon, or maybe too late. What then? Should I peek inside the husk? If I do, will insects be watching me and then take advantage of my opening the husks to invade the ears? Let me ponder this a bit more…

Monday, August 3, 2009

A Gardening Life Cycle

One of the delights of gardening each season is the appearance of newly germinating plants. After weeks of watching the brown crusty earth in dismay (and suddenly remembering to water the soil to keep it moist), we finally see tiny seedlings beginning to emerge. It’s so exciting. Those tiny green plants, almost microscopic in size compared to the relative giants they will become, hold the promise of our future meals. As we strain our eyes to see each individual plant, we sadly know about thinning yet are ever so hesitant to begin the process of ruthlessly pulling some of them from the ground.

The flowers to me are the plants' crowning glory. Each one either represents pollen for a fruit or a receptacle for a fruit (in the botanical sense). I thrill at the early morning sight of huge, beaming yellow zucchini blossoms. I quietly appreciate the simple white flowers of the pea plants. This year, however, what surprised me the most was the subtle lavender shade of the eggplant flower.

Is it not a miracle when the fruit finally does arrive? Small at first, these grow so quickly into sizable produce that I use to nourish myself, my family, and my friends. They always seem to appear so suddenly. Looking among huge green leaves along the fence, I spy a huge cucumber. When did that grow? I find tiny green balls along the muskmelon vine. They are tinier than marbles! I have to admit that my favorite plant this year has been the eggplant. I never had any luck with this plant before. This year, however, a shiny dark eggplant is actually growing in place of the purple flower that was there a week ago. I don't want to forget to mention the corn. The sudden appearance of silk strands, like many Rapunzels letting their hair down, suddenly adorn the sides of our cornstalks!

Produce aside, I have one other addition to my garden that has sweet appeal to me. It’s a stone, hand-painted in the form of a mouse, which is looking up from my herb garden. True, it’s an adornment and not a plant, but at least this mouse cannot eat my corn.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

...and the Rains Came Down

From my earliest childhood, I have always loved thunderstorms. The distant rumble of thunder, the startling flashes of lightening, and then the heaviest downpours always seemed to bring a sense of relief to hot, muggy summer days.

As a gardener, I delight in heavy rains as they mean a day that I don’t water have to my garden because it’s being done for me. That situation, however, has it problems.

Looking out my front door recently after a brief but particularly heavy rainstorm, I was distraught to find all of my cornstalks lying parallel to the ground. There goes my corn harvest, I thought. I’d taken such care to plant the corn in a square (as I had been taught by my farmer Pam) as opposed to a line. I’d even been shaking the plants to get them to pollinate each other. The position of the stalks flat on the ground did not seem especially good for pollination.

Never one to work out a problem alone, I called to my husband for help.

“Oh, save those plants”, I cried. He’s my hero, you know.

Off to the rescue with tall stakes, perhaps even a shovel handle or two, he gently lifted each stalk upright, in the same way a parent might tend a fallen, despairing child. He secured each stalk with a soft length of twine so that the stalks would know that we expected them to grow upright and not sideways.

We waited. A few days later, there did not seem to be any apparent damage to the cornstalks from their sudden collapse. In fact, I even discovered some corn silk peeking out of one of the plants. Corn harvest, here we come!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Bag Those Bugs

Uh oh! It was truly a bug infestation to give me the creeps. I can safely take one insect at a time. In fact, I’ll pick up one insect to examine it, finding its mysteries fascinating. That comes to an end when bugs come in multitudes.

Take those creepy crawlers I found on my cucumber plants yesterday, for example. They looked somewhat like half-inch yellow porcupines. Too many too count, those yellow “buggers” made my skin crawl. I’m not sure yet exactly what kind of bugs they were because my quick browsing of Google revealed every yellow bug known to man – except, of course, the ones on my cucumber plants. I’m sure it’s my web-browsing skills rather than my discovery of a yet-undiscovered yellow insect.

Anyway, I found those bugs when picking a particularly nice and plump cucumber. I noticed that all of the leaves on that plant from a certain point downward (my plants climb up a fence) had lacy leaves, not unlike something that could be found on a bride’s veil, instead of green leaves. Those yellow bugs, who obviously like organic greens, were taking away my cucumber plant’s photosynthesizing ability. I was horrified.

I thought back in disappointment at an encounter I had with bugs last year on my horseradish plants. Somewhere I had read that, to kill those plant pests, all I needed to do was immerse then in a soap solution. I thought that was simple enough until I put that idea into practice. In reality what happened was that the bugs, after having been immersed in a soap solution contained in a plastic basin, simply swam to the edge of the basin and crawled out. They had finished their refreshing bath, found themselves clean once again, and were coming out to sun themselves dry. En masse. I was totally creeped out.

That was not going to be my solution (pun somewhat intended) this year. My attack would be more direct. I was going to take those unwanted guests completely out of my garden. Armed with scissors and a plastic bag, I began to cut off all the leaves hosting bugs on their undersides. I did this surreptitiously so that the bugs would not notice. Into the bag went all those bugs still attached to their current leaf dinners. After capturing all I could find, I tied the bag tightly and tossed the bag into the trash. I wonder if those insects knew they were headed on sort of a bug vacation? Bye, guys!

Editor's Note: I've subsequently identified those bugs as the larva of the Mexican Bean Beetle thanks to an identifying diagram in Crockett's Victory Garden (1977: Little Brown and Company).

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Peas Porridge Hot

It's been a while since I've grown peas, and I wasn't sure exactly what to do with them. One of the good things about raising peas is that, if planted well and evenly spaced, no thinning is necessary.

I thought I'd do two rows of them with a fencelike apparatus between them. The problem was that I had no fencing. I figured that I could rig up something that would serve the same purpose. I started with two tall stakes at either end of the rows. I then used some garden twine to build a web between them that any spider would be proud of. I was delighted when my tall pea plants reached their tiny tendrils out to grab hold of my web, er, fencing.

I found that another perk of raising peas was that there was not an overwhelming number of them when the crop was ripe. I didn't have to go with bushels of peas as offerings to my neighbors. Quite to the contrary. There were relatively few pea pods per plant. It got to be a game between my husband and myself. Each day we'd be on the lookout for plump (but not overripe and bitter) peapods. Rather than pick them for later, I found myself just plucking them, opening them, and popping those sweet young peas, much like candy, into my mouth.

Did I have any peas left over with which to cook? Of course not! I ate them all (unless my husband got a few). To let him know that this quick eating of our pea crop was okay, I left telltale evidence (the empty pods) on the ground. At least he knows a rabbit didn't open the pods quite so neatly.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Tomato Saga

As a kid, I remember looking at my dad's vegetable garden and not thinking much about it other than the fact that gardening was his favorite hobby. Now I truly value all the effort he put into having such a successful garden and wish he were still alive to give me gardening advice that only a father knows how to do.

After many years of not attempting a vegetable garden due to lack of sunlight in my yard, my neighbor, in one fell swoop, decided to chop down three trees shading our house. After bemoaning the summer heat that would overwhelm our house, I began to remember my dad's tomatoes. Sunshine! Tomato plants! They go together, I thought.

Last year's tomatoes, my first tomato plantings after many years, ended up at the end of the season looking not much different than what I would imagine Brer Rabbit's briar patch looked like. Tomato plants hanging out of wire cages in all direction, some even clinging to the ground for dear life.

This year will be different, I thought. No cages this year. They didn't work well last year. My CSA Farmer Pam suggested using long sticks, even broomsticks for staking the plants. My husband (and partner in this endeavor, since this vegetable garden is in honor of our 30th wedding anniversary) volunteered to ride off to Home Depot to get stakes for the tomatoes.

Arriving home, my husband proceeded to show me the stakes. Of course, there was one less stake than we had tomato plants. No problem, I thought. I 'll just tie two plants together. It will be like two tomato plants doing a three-legged race.

My husband (a very strong man!) sledge-hammered the stakes into the ground. Suddenly, the stakes weren't that tall after all. Those plants were tiny. They'll do just fine, I thought.

It had been raining day after day. I don't think I remember an early summer with so much rain. MY CSA Farmer Pam wrote to me about having to change clothes three times in one day to harvest her crops due to the amount of rain and the mud. My tomato plants were not growing. We were at a battle of wills, it seemed.

Off my husband trots to his friend Frank, a landscaper no less, and returns home with fertilizer. "This should do the trick", my husband tell me. He had his friend's word. I believed both of them so I applied the fertilizer to the ground around the tomato plants.

Do you know the story of Jack and the Beanstalk? Well, then you know the end of my tale. The tomatoes grew, and grew, and grew. From somewhere I heard that I had to pinch out the suckers (those branches that grow between the central stem and side branches). I did that, not knowing I was causing my plants to gow even taller. You're wondering where the stakes were at this point, I'll bet. Well, if I were a tomato plant, the stakes would have reached up to my knees.

I decided that I would not allow the plants to get the better of me. One tomato plant that was taller than I was particularly annoyed me. I pinched off its top. There! That made me feel better. Armed with scissors and soft string, I decided to tie all of those gangly giants in place. Now there is string all over my tomato plants. They are gagged, bound, and going nowhere.

They continue to annoy me however. I see myriads of little tomatoes on my plants. They are all quite small and very green. The plants continue to produce small, green tomatoes. There are tons of them. Where are the plump red, delicious tomatoes I was expecting?

The fight goes on.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Gardening - Part 1

Oh, my! Summer's half over and I've only made one entry in my written gardening journal. Perhaps I'll do better with this online journal.

This is the State of the Garden as of today.

I pulled up all of my radish plants because they never turned into radishes. However, they did make large bunches of leaves with pretty white flowers. Bah! I grew these plants for food.

I have to figure out why the plants never produced radishes. Here are my theories. I planted them too late in the season. I did not thin them well enough. I had too much nitrogen in my soil. Too late now, I guess, because I just planted lima beans in the former radish spot.

Fool that I am, I took 1/3 of the leaves and made them into radish green soup. Too bad that no one in my family would eat it beside me.

Not to be outdone, I harvested the rest of the radish greens today. I stripped the leaves from the stems, and throughly washed the leaves. Then I blanched them for a few minutes in boiling water. I tossed them into iced water to cool them quickly, drained them and chopped them into small pieces.

Here's the trick. I'm freezing these cooked leaves to put into more soup. In the end, my family will be eating them after all. Victory!

Sssshhhh! It's our secret.