You’ve probably heard the saying that the weather in Texas is one long drought interrupted by occasional floods. It’s also a series of El Niño (wet) and La Niña (dry) weather patterns that affect the temperatures and precipitation. Here in Austin we are coming out of an El Niño which contributed to delightfully mild spring temperatures and the wettest May on record at Austin-Bergstrom Airport – 15.82 inches.
The resulting rains promoted vigorous – I’m inclined to call it rampant – growth in the vegetable garden. An interesting season for sure. Here are some observations that some of you may relate to: the good, the bad and the ugly, with a weird and a wonderful thrown in for good measure.
My Water Bill: The lowest in a long time!
Containers: It was a great year for my spring “pot” garden. I used large containers (mostly 7-10 gallon) and planted compact varieties of green beans, tomatoes, cucumber, squash and okra in late March; by early June I was harvesting from every container. Then it got really hot, really fast and the rains turned off. All I have now is ‘Baby Bubba’ okra, ‘Peppermint’ Swiss chard and okra, but that’s ok because I’m ready to give the pots a rest until cooler temperatures return in fall.
Corn: No raccoons – that alone is a minor miracle in my backyard! They tend to show up every year for the corn but not this time. Maybe the rain deterred them or perhaps they didn’t care for the varieties I chose. This year I planted an old-fashioned shoepeg variety called ‘Country Gentleman’ (an heirloom from 1890); I also made room for a small section of ‘Glass Gem’, a beautiful, jewel-toned flint corn carefully selected for its vibrant colors by a seed saver and corn grower from Oklahoma named Carl Barnes.
Carl was part Cherokee, and he was devoted to preserving the colorful, traditional corns of Native Americans. The sturdy stalks of ‘Glass Gem’ are 8-9 feet tall which makes the individual ears look disappointingly small, but once you pick them and pull the husk back the striking colors and translucent sparkle will make your jaw drop. I never knew Carl Barnes but I thought about him when I planted my ‘Glass Gem’ seeds in March and was thankful for his lifetime fascination with corn. He passed away a month later, on April 16, at the age of 87. You can help keep Carl’s legacy alive by planting ‘Glass Gem’ in your own garden. Seeds are available from Victory Seeds (www.victoryseeds.com), Baker Creek (www.rareseeds.com) or Seeds Trust (www.seedstrust.com ). The kernels can be ground or popped but frankly they are so stunning I plan to just admire mine for awhile.
Quinoa Fail: I picked up a packet of quinoa at a garden show thinking it would be fun to try. It takes 90-120 days for the seed heads to form and dry. I planted seeds in mid-February and it grew impressively during March and April, developing beautiful crimson blooms, then it rained and rained and rained some more and the beautiful pink flower heads rotted under the constantly moist conditions. One packet contains plenty of seeds so I will try again, perhaps this fall.
Crunch, crunch; buzz, buzz: The snails and mosquitoes came out in full force with the wet weather; I could hardly walk to my garden without hearing the crunch of a snail shell below my shoe or the buzz of a mosquito around my ears. Now that the rains have tapered off so have the snails, but no matter how often I empty standing water or replenish the mosquito dunks in collected rainwater the mosquitoes just keep buzzing. Be sure to eliminate all sources of standing water – even the ones you don’t think about or see, like shallow plant saucers, gutters, depressions in plastic tarps or folds in bags that might hold even a small amount of water.
When working outside follow the four D’s: DRAIN (standing water), DEET (apply repellent to clothes and exposed skin), DUSK & DAWN (stay indoors at dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are most active) and DRESS (wear long sleeves and long pants).
This was an especially bad year for early blight in tomatoes, a soil-borne fungus that appears as small dark spots on the lower leaves, which gradually turn yellow and dry up. The fungus spreads quickly, moving up the plant, infecting healthy green leaves as quickly as you can remove dying diseased foliage. Unfortunately, once plants are heavily infected no amount of fungicides, fertilizer or magic sprays will save them so at this point in the season it may be best to cut your losses. Harvest remaining tomatoes (fried green tomatoes, anyone?), remove infected plants and plan to rotate the next round of tomatoes to another spot in the garden. We’ll have more on early blight in a future post.
Critters: I’ve always heard that squirrels and birds eat tomatoes because they are thirsty, but not in this case. There was water everywhere yet they still opted for the red, juicy tomatoes. Squirrels always seem to go for the best tomatoes so at least you could say they have good taste.
Tromboncino Squash: This vigorous Italian heirloom starts out green like a zucchini and ends up tan like a butternut squash. Eating quality is best when fruit is less than 12 inches long, but it will quickly and effortlessly reach 3 feet in length – especially with lots of rain! It’s crunchier than zucchini and perhaps a little nutty – I have heard its flavor described as walnuts combined with pumpkin and a touch of artichoke. It can be sautéed, grilled, baked, eaten raw in salads or spiralized into zoodles. It is supposed to be less susceptible to squash vine borer, however in my experience the borer still gets in but the vines quickly outgrow it. And if you like squash blossoms this may be the squash for you – they are big, beautiful and plentiful. Sources for seed include Territorial Seed (www.territorialseed.com) and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (www.southernexposure.com).
Happy 90th Birthday, Mom!! We celebrated my mom’s birthday earlier this month. She has always loved purple – growing up in Midland we were “the house with the purple door”. So at age 90 we went all out with a purple party. I even presented her with purple beans, purple eggplant, purple tomatoes, purple potatoes and a big, purple artichoke bloom. All fresh from the garden. She picked out her favorite purple shirt to wear that day – the one that says “It’s all in the attitude”.
Her stamina for physical activity has dwindled over the last couple of years but she’s great at shelling. She lives close so I do my best to supply her with butterbeans, cowpeas, pecans, peanuts, shrimp and anything else that needs to be shelled. She works so fast that by the time I get home she’s calling me saying, “Your peas are done, do you have any more?” Those farming genes run deep…sometimes I think I ought to hire her out.