Thursday, August 25, 2011

What's Been Growing?

These pictures are already a couple of weeks old, but I'm posting them to give you an idea about what's been going on in the garden!

Actually, I'll start with the peas, because they are gone now. These photos date back to over a month ago (maybe more...time is really flying). While the peas grew, we LOVED them! I don't think very many pods made it to the kitchen before being broken open! The delicious, crisp green peas inside were such a wonderful treat.

Here is a tiny new cilantro sprouting. We have already harvested two plants, and replaced each with a new seed. Cilantro is the only herb we have planted and harvested, which is a shame! We have space in front of our tomatoes of lots of herbs...we just never took the time to plant them. Note taken for future reference!

Two green peppers keep growing and growing: here are two pictures showing their growth within just a week!

Here are our green beans, next to the now-empty pea plot (we hope to plant more peas soon as the weather cools off). The green beans have been doing very well! Each day we gather a handful of beans that are ready. We always have to taste one raw (delicious), and then save the handful in the kitchen until we've collected enough for a meal. (Next to the green beans are the kohlrabi, a vegetable we have fallen in love with from our CSA, and decided to try to grow ourselves).

Move down a few steps and you'll find all our peppers, residing together. Green, habenero, and jalepeno.

Here is the view from the end of that side of the garden, with our large pumpkin and zucchini plants taking over their section with a great zest!

The tomatoes are the kings of the garden, and have grown much larger and fuller since this picture was taken:

It has taken a lot of staking to keep them from collapsing. I even had to get a steel rebar to anchor one of these plants! There are some HUGE tomatoes, still green, growing on the vines. Our blossom end rot problem has really improved, just from one feeding with chicken manure, and with less frequent watering. We have 8 plants shown above, and the plant on the far right has proven to be our most prolific producer. It is a yellow pear tomato, and its fruits ripen quickly. We have had MANY of those yellow pear tomatoes as a snack, often right there next to the garden. They are about the size of a cherry tomato, look--as the name suggests--like a cute little pear, and ripen into a gorgeous golden yellow, bursting with flavor. Look for a blog post this week that will showcase this fun, tasty, and wildly successful tomato!

Two more tomato plants reside in the backyard, in the famous 'topsy turvy' planters, which we mostly decided to try out as an experiment. They started out looking like this:

And have grown into this:

The plant on the left is a yellow pear tomato. Even though that type of tomato has been extremely successful in the garden, this topsy turvy-ed plant hasn't even produced a single blosson. Apparently it would really prefer to be right side up! The plant on the right, however (a beefsteak), is giving tomato-growing a shot:

Our zucchinis gave us a good run, but appear to be finished producing fruit. Here we are with our final harvest:

In our last post, you saw our pumpkins, which continue to grow. We have been making guesses about how big those pumpkins will get, and let me just say that these kids are planning to harvest some monster pumpkins.

As summer starts to wane, we are going to start thinking about our fall planting. Spent plants will be taken out and put into our compost, and we'll make plans for new plants to take their place; plants that prefer cooler weather and will give us a continued harvest. In fact, the time to start some of those plants indoors is right now! We have a few gardening books to help guide us as we plan out our seedlings-into-the-garden schedule for fall.

However, even as we look ahead to fall planting, we still have a lot of harvesting to look forward to in the upcoming weeks. Vegetables will begin to ripen beautifully, ready for picking. It seems like every day we find a new surprise, and fuller, lusher vegetables. Never a dull day in the Little Hands Garden!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

We Have Pumpkins!

Remember our pumpkin plants that we discovered growing from last year's jack-o-lanterns? This blog entry shows where those plants started. Now look at them, growing next to and competing with the zucchini:

I had read somewhere that pumpkins and zucchinis may not do well next to one another because they are both squash and might try to cross pollinate. Then I heard that only the 'children' of this year's plants would be effected (if I tried to save the seed to replant next spring). Either way, I thought we might end up with some kind of weird pumpccini or zucckin...but so far, we've harvested 5 beautiful zucchinis (with more of them growing). AND, after months of searching through the huge pumpkin plant for any signs of blossoms turning to fruit, we finally one TWO gorgeous pumpkins! One is getting pretty big!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Not The Tomato Harvest We Were Hoping For!

Why did we pick all these tomatoes when they are so green and so small?

Turn them over for an unpleasant surprise:

What we have here is blossom end rot. What a disappointment! After some research, and talking to other gardeners in my life (namely, Uncle Loren), I learned that this unfortunate condition occurs for mainly two reasons:

1). Uneven watering
2). Lack of calcium in the soil

After the kids and I properly mourned our first harvest of tomatoes (for we had watched them since they first began to bubble out from their blooms and had very high hopes!), I set out to learn how to enrich the soil with more calcium. I found a lot of advice online, including feeding the plants with bonemeal, bloodmeal, and even Tums! Which makes some sense, since they are made of calcium. Eyeing the Tums container in the cabinet and wanting a quick fix, I almost followed that advice, but I just couldn't. It seems like logical advice, and perhaps we'll try it if we need to later, but for now I felt like there was just too much at stake for experiments...we really really wanted to save our tomatoes! So, I resisted the urge to head out and stuff Tums into the ground, and instead waited until I had a chance to go to the gardening center (aka Lowe's) down the street to look for something else.

Lowe's has a nice little selection of organic plant feeds and sprays, which I find encouraging. Of course, the chemical selection is 4 or 5 times bigger, and the types of promises on those chemicals' packages are quite enticing. Grow huge vegetables, eradicate any and all types of pests and diseases! I feel fortunate, however, that as a novice gardener, deciding to start out organically, I've never had a taste of the chemicals' quick fixes and I don't know what I'm missing. I am simply not interested in them.

Even in the organic section, looking at the labels carefully is important. I had my mind set on bloodmeal when I headed to Lowe's, even though the name makes me shudder. I looked at a couple different brands, both of which boasted "cow-free" blood, which I thought strange, so I looked at the ingredients: 100% porcine. How is pig blood any better? And where was this pig blood coming from? I was feeling woozy at this point, and realizing I hadn't armed myself with any of the arguments of what type of blood is better, or with any knowledge whatsover about using bloodmeal (does the blood come from CAFOs?), I looked for something entirely different. I realize the importance of bloodmeal and bonemeal to organic gardening (I have read about the use of these two morbid-sounding substances countless times in sources I fully trust), but at the moment I was feeling completely unprepared to make any decisions.

This package caught my eye (was it the giant tomato?):

The one and only ingredient? Well-composted chicken manure. Plenty of calcium, among other plant goodies like nitrogen and phosphate. In fact, the percentage of calcium in this plant food was higher than in the blood or bone meal. Score!

We fed the tomatoes by putting our fingers down into the soil around the roots to make small wells, putting a tablespoon full in each well (4 wells per plant), and smoothing it all back over. Then, of course, we gave the tomatoes a drink.

But what about that water? What is 'uneven watering'? Have we been watering the tomatoes too much, or not enough? Since we had been giving the garden a drink every single day, my instincts told me perhaps we could try watering every other day.

Since we've implemented the new watering plan, and fed the plants, we've watched for healthy tomatoes every time we enter the garden. We still see this:

And we also see tomatoes with less severe rot:

AND! We have been finding beautiful tomatoes with absolutely no blemishes whatsoever!

I think we may have hope!

Now, I do want to mention something. We had been picking those black-bottom tomatoes as soon as we spotted them and tossing them into our compost bin. I felt like the plants would be wasting energy to continue growing a bad tomato. Lately, though, we leave them alone. For one thing, blossom end rot is not a disease that will effect any other tomato or the plant itself. It is a condition that effects only that particular tomato. The plant will potentially grow unblemished tomatoes simultaneously. For another thing, those tomatoes do not have to be wasted! Once they get large and ripe, the bottoms can be cut off, and the tops will be perfectly good. Since we want as many tomatoes as possible, we thought we'd let the tomatoes grow and see for ourselves if this is good advice.

Hopefully we'll see some red, soon!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Book Review: Omnivore's Dilemma

I highly recommend this book by Michael Pollan, and actually, I recommend reading the Young Reader's Edition as well. If you need a good starting point in your quest to understand our food system and how it relates to everything else in our history and culture, this would be a good read for you.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Now here is a book that I would recommend as a 'must-read' for everyone. There are many excellent books that focus on our present food issues, but Michael Pollan has clarity and a straightforward personality that will reach all audiences. Pollan writes about the concerns we are all starting to have, but remains extremely real and grounded. He is someone who you could imagine hanging out and having a beer with. He isn’t going to look down his nose at you for eating a hamburger, or lecture you about the evils of the banana you are putting into your mouth. Instead, he’ll sip his beer and tell his fascinating stories of his own discoveries; the journeys he has embarked on to find answers to those gnawing questions we have about our food. He’ll make you think a little, and perhaps change your mind about some of the ways that you eat.

I have to admit, I'd been putting off reading any of Michael Pollan’s book for awhile. Maybe I felt there was too much hype about them and was afraid I'd be disappointed if they weren’t as good as everyone claimed. Or maybe I didn't want to read the awful truths I knew he'd be revealing. Now I realize what I have been missing. Omnivore’s Dilemma gives a lot of detail about the bits and pieces I already have learned about our food system—that part I was expecting. What I wasn't expecting was his humor ... and his humanness. Unlike some others who write about food and our culture, he never once ‘talks down’ to the reader, nor does he seem to live an unrealistic, purist lifestyle. He simply takes a long, hard look at the ways we, as a species, eat, and puts into words all the things we wonder about as human beings when we really begin to contemplate our food. Most amazingly, he finally admits that with everything having been said, he might still once in a while happen to eat a McDonald's hamburger. Even though, he says, he is losing his taste and appetite for industrial food, just like so many of us are.

I love the 4 parts of the book and their focus on different types of meals: The Industrial Food Chain, The Big Organic Food Chain, The Local and Sustainable Meal, and the Foraged/Gardened/Hunted Meal.

The history of our Industrial Food chain didn't provide me any huge surprises, since I have read so much about it already, but the history of corn was nice. I was amused by Pollan's viewpoint of corn's success as a species, and how the plant itself is, evolutionarily speaking, the winner in the whole deal.

I have been a little suspicious of Big Organic for quite some time, so it's nice to have an author address the issue. Yes, Pollan writes, it's good to avoid pouring chemicals into our earth and water...but growing organic food on a big scale to meet the demands of a national market has huge drawbacks. The techniques of cultivating the land, bringing in compost/manure if it's not made onsite, and storing and shipping the harvested food turns out to be just as fuel-burning as conventional food production. Pollan claims that going organic on a big scale is an improvement, and gives us more choices...but that we can do better.

His chapters covering the Local, Sustainable food chain really had me sitting up in my chair, because it's something I believe in. He spent some time living at and helping with Polyface Farm (a 'grass farm' in Virginia that produces sustainable chicken, pork, beef, eggs and produce) and goes into great detail describing the amazing ways this farm operates. Polyface Farm is the kind of agricultural operation that I imagine when I think of a future of sustainable agriculture. Joel Salatin, the owner, has incredible wisdom about what he is doing, and farms like his are quietly spreading the idea that we, as eaters and consumers, do not have to settle for the Industrial Agricultural system.

I'll never view hunting in quite the same way after reading about his Gathered/Gardened/Hunted meal. Pollan really put into perspective some of the struggles I've had about eating meat in these chapters. I've been 'almost a vegetarian' for years...the key word being 'almost'. Pollan brought a lot of issues up that resonated with me and my still-wanting-to-have-meat-sometimes struggles. He gives a lot of thought to what a person needs to be responsible for and have knowledge about if they are going to eat meat. What if the walls of our CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) were completely transparent? What if everyone knew exactly what was involved in getting that ‘inexpensive’ meat all the way to their plate? Pollan believes, and I full-heartedly agree, that if the business of meat processing were not ‘out of the way and out of view’, many more of us would completely lose our taste for meat.

My favorite part of Omnivore’s Dilemma is Pollan’s enthusiasm for the ability each one of us has to make choices and changes. In his Young Reader’s Edition of the book (which is highly valuable in its own right), aimed at middle/high school students, he includes an afterword called “Vote with Your Fork”. He states that “It’s an exciting time to be an eater in America. You have choices today that your parents couldn’t have dreamed of: organic, local, CSAs, humanely raised milk and meat. When they were your age, there was basically only one way to feed yourself: from the industrial food chain. You have the option of eating from a very different food chain—you can vote with your fork for a better world, one delicious bite at a time.” Indeed!