‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ Okra by Patty G. Leander

 

Southern-Living-Seed-Guide

The Southern Living Seed Guide

A little over a month ago I was thumbing through the February issue of Southern Living while waiting for a dental appointment. I skipped past the kitchen redo, the make-your-own-berry-wreath and the South’s new hotels to land on a piece titled The Southern Living Seed Guide. As a seed-admiring, seed-saving vegetable gardener I am drawn to stories and articles about seeds, varieties and the stories behind them.

My favorite seed story, of course, is the one I am most familiar with and one I have a personal connection to – ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ bushy okra, developed by my all-time favorite garden mentors, teachers and encouragers, the late George and Mary Stewart. So when I saw ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’  listed as a Southern Living pick it made me smile real big, and then my smile turned to disbelief and dismay when they referred to it as a Louisiana heirloom!

Stewart’s-Zeebest-okra

‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ okra harvest.

Uh-uh, no way. We love you, Louisiana, but the Lone Star State’s reputation is at stake here: ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ is not a Louisiana heirloom though you certainly get some credit since George was born in Westlake, Louisiana and ‘Zeebest’ was selected from a planting of ‘Louisiana Green Velvet’ okra. But all the toil and sweat that George and Mary put into developing ‘Zeebest’ – planting, selecting, saving, replanting and ultimately sharing – occurred in the 1980s at the Stewart homeplace in Houston, right down on South Main where George and Mary spent most of their adult life, across the street from the train tracks and a few doors down from the auto repair shop. And to add a little more perspective, George and Mary had lived in Houston so long they could remember the installation of Houston’s first traffic light and gleefully shared tales of the days before air-conditioning.

houston-chronicle-stewart

Houston’s premier garden educators, George and Mary Stewart, profiled by Kathy Huber in the Houston Chronicle, 1990

George and Mary Stewart were extraordinary gardeners, full of wit and wisdom and a special gift for entertaining while educating. They drew the audience into their horticultural adventures with stories and laughter, inspiring a can-do attitude that made you want to go home and grow-your-own. For posterity’s sake and to keep the record straight, here is a brief history of ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’:

George-Stewart

A proud George with one of his branching, productive ‘Zeebest’ okra plants. Photo by William D. Adams

In the 1980s George and Mary were given a few pods from a highly productive planting of ‘Louisiana Green Velvet’ okra from the garden of family friend Joe Ziegler. The seeds were planted in the Stewart garden and George recognized that some of the plants developed a strong branching pattern. They began carefully selecting for tender, productive and heavily branched plants which George enthusiastically referred to as ‘Stewart’s Zeebest Bushy Okra’; over time it was shortened to ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ or simply ‘Zeebest’ and soon they were promoting their home-grown Texas variety and giving away seeds. That was almost 30 years ago so it hasn’t yet reached heirloom status. An heirloom is generally defined as an open-pollinated variety that has been grown and maintained by an individual or a community for 50 years. Well, George and Mary are gone now but they left ‘Zeebest’ in our hands and we in turn need to keep it in production for future generations. Today, thanks mostly to the efforts of Bill Adams, Retired Harris County Extension Agent and good friend of George and Mary, seeds are available from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (Rare Seeds) and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (Southern Exposure).

Whether you are a native Texan or a transplant, if you live in Texas I hope you have learned to love okra. If you haven’t planted seed yet now is a good time. Okra not only survives but it thrives in our heat and looks pretty good while doing it, thanks to being a member of the mallow family which also includes hibiscus and hollyhock. Most varieties produce in 60-65 days and will continue to produce right up to the first frost. Overgrown okra can be fibrous and tough and should be picked when it is 3-5” long. It grows fast so check for pods every other day.

stewarts-zeebest-okra

Flag the best okra pods for saving and let them dry on the plant.

Saving seed of okra is very easy to do as the seeds are big and the pods are a perfect receptacle.  To ensure the purity of the seed it is recommended that you grow and save seed from only one variety at a time. Select one or two pods (or more if you want to have plenty to share) from your healthiest specimens, flag the chosen pods with brightly colored tape, and let those pods dry on the plant.

I met George and Mary in 1989, when Mary was 79 and George was 83. I was in my early thirties and they could run circles around me in the vegetable garden. They gardened intuitively and frugally, generously sharing what they knew about growing vegetables to scores of home gardeners along the Gulf Coast.  George and Mary were proud of the vegetables that they grew and their produce needed no enhancements. But George was a born storyteller and was known to sometimes embellish the truth. Though he tried to keep his exaggerations to a minimum, it seemed to be Mary’s lot in life to keep George grounded in truth. In fact, at the age of 83, after some 60 years of marriage, Mary wrote and dedicated the following poem to George:

Tell any tale you like, m’love,

Embroidered with lies and fiction;

I’ll not interrupt to correct, m’love,

                   Your facts or figures or diction.

Embellish your stories to any degree

                   With fables and falsification;

Just don’t turn to me and expect me to give

                   My unqualified verification.

 

With that in mind, below is a description of ‘Zeebest’, taken right out of Mary’s garden notes:

“The parent plant of these seed had 28 branches and 243 pods on it at one time.  We started with Louisiana Green Velvet and over a period of 9 years of selection for branching tendencies, this is the result.  To save seed, let a fine pod on a good specimen plant dry on the stalk,
then shell out and let dry completely in open tray at room temperature.  Store seeds in a tightly closed container in the refrigerator.”

mary-stewart

Mary’s collection of recipes and remembrances, published at the age of 80

Mary learned to use a computer when she was 80 years old and proceeded to write a cookbook which she titled, “Kitchen NostalgiaAn Incomplete Cookbook–A Collection of Heirloom Recipes, Past and Future”.  The preface of Mary’s cookbook begins “This is in memory of Mamma.” Here is a favorite recipe from the files of vegetable gardener and home-cook extraordinaire, Mary Stewart, in her own words:

Okra and Tomatoes

“This has been a summer mainstay as long as we have had a garden, which has been forever. Some add browned beef, but I never have. It is good served over rice or just as a side vegetable. Searing the cut okra in hot fat at the start takes away some of the slickness and makes it more palatable. The amounts are really variable, so feel free to deviate.”
4 cups sliced fresh okra

¼ cup oil (or bacon fat)
1 cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped bell peppers, red, green or mixed

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon cumin

2 8-ounce cans tomato sauce or 1 can tomato paste (or 2 cups peeled, chopped tomato)

1 cup water

Heat the oil in a heavy pot or skillet; add okra, stirring to sear the cut edges. Don’t let it burn. Add onions and sauté till limp, then add garlic and pepper and simmer about 5 minutes, stirring to prevent burning. Then add the tomato sauce or paste, thinning with water to have it a bit on the “soupy” side. Add the seasonings and simmer about 15 minutes, stirring now and then until the okra is tender but not falling apart. Yield: 8 servings

George and Mary Stewart in their Houston vegetable garden in the early 1990s. Photo by William D. Adams

George and Mary Stewart in their Houston vegetable garden in the early 1990s. Photo by William D. Adams

I hope that if you decide to grow ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ bushy okra, you will share it with compliments of George and Mary, and take the time to reflect on the heritage of gardeners from your own family history, passing these stories down to a future generation of vegetable growers.

Springing Forward in the Vegetable Garden-by Patty G. Leander

So long winter, it’s time for you to move on! You have overstayed your welcome, and not just here in Texas but the Midwest and Northeast as well, where the snow keeps growing deeper and the icicles have reached massive lengths (check out these incredible Instagram icicle photos at http://www.boston.com/news/weather/2015/02/11/the-icicles-instagram/YfkqQcjuV5xW7JIEFPVsEJ/story.html).

spring-garden

The spring season is upon us! Photo by Bruce Leander

Here in Austin we’ve had over two inches of gentle rain the last few days, we now have an extra hour of daylight, the forecast is looking good and like most gardeners I am itching to plant. We must proceed with caution though. Working wet soil can cause clumping and compaction so if you’ve had rain it’s best to wait a few days and allow the soil to dry out. One way to know if the soil is too wet is to take a handful and squeeze it in your hand; if it forms a muddy clump then it is too wet, but if it crumbles or breaks apart when dropped from above you are good to go.

over-ripe-produce

Remove over-mature crops before they become infested with unwanted pests. Photo by Bruce Leander

If you have not yet cleaned out your fall and winter crops it’s time to do so. Cool season vegetables that are left in the ground after the weather starts to warm up tend to become a breeding ground for unwanted pests, plus they quickly grow beyond their prime.

vegetable-transplants

Grow transplants of cool season greens in partial shade. Photo by Bruce Leander

As Jay mentioned in his previous post you’ll find transplants of mustard, collards and lettuce available at nurseries but think twice before you reach for that plant. Do you have room for it in your garden or will it be taking up valuable space needed for warm season vegetables like cucumbers, beans, okra or squash?  If you’d love to have some fresh greens for spring consider planting these vegetables in pots and place them close to the house in a spot that gets dappled or morning sun.

swiss-chard

Swiss chard will take the heat of summer as long as it receives shade during the hottest part of the day. Photo by Bruce Leander

Swiss chard is the most adaptable of the cool weather greens as it will grow happily into summer, especially if you plant it where it will get some shade during the hottest part of the day.

Bread smeared with butter is totally American, but top it with some fresh radishes and a sprinkle of course salt and you have a classic French hors d’oeuvre. Photo by Bruce Leander

Bread smeared with butter is totally American, but top it with some fresh radishes and a sprinkle of course salt and you have a classic French hors d’oeuvre. Photo by Bruce Leander

Enjoy this time of transition in the vegetable garden and the eating-in-season that comes with it. Radishes are great sliced in a salad but have you ever tried them sliced over buttered bread with a sprinkling of sea salt? Or sautéed with sugar snap peas? Talk about a versatile vegetable, radishes can be grated, steamed, braised or simmered, even the leaves and seed pods are edible. Take this opportunity to branch out from sliced radishes in a salad or cauliflower covered with cheese sauce (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) to bring some exciting new flavors to your kitchen. Below are a few ideas to help with your end-of-winter harvest.

radish-sugar-snap-peas

Braised radish and sugar snap peas are different and delicious. Photo by Bruce Leander

Braised Radishes and Sugar Snap Peas

Remove the strings from sugar snap peas and quarter radishes. Melt butter in a skillet and add the peas and radishes. Sauté briefly then add a few tablespoons of water or chicken broth. Cook, partially covered, until radishes and peas are tender. Top with chopped mint or chervil and a splash of vinegar.

 

Broccoli and Cauliflower don't have to be steamed!  Try roasting them for a healthy and tasty side.  Photo by Bruce Leander

Broccoli and Cauliflower don’t have to be steamed! Try roasting them for a healthy and tasty side. Photo by Bruce Leander

Roasted Cauliflower and Broccoli

Cut broccoli and cauliflower into equal sized pieces. Toss in olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and arrange in a single layer on a large baking sheet. Roast at 425° until golden and slightly charred, about 25-30 minutes.

Cauliflower-rice

Try cooking grated cauliflower as a quick side or a flavorful substitute for rice.

Cauliflower “Rice”

Grated cauliflower is a lot like rice yet cooks faster than couscous – you’ve never made cauliflower so quick and easy. We like big, plump Medjool dates but any dates or even raisins will do.  

Grate one head of cauliflower into a bowl. Sauté in a small amount of olive oil until golden, about 10 minutes. Add ½ cup chopped dates, sprinkle with ¼- ½ teaspoon turmeric, season with salt and pepper and cook 5-7 minutes longer. Top with chopped cilantro and sliced almonds before serving.

pot-likker

A big pot of greens will yield plenty of pot likker; freeze some of that delicious liquid as a base for flavoring summer vegetables.

Greens

Flavored with some bacon or ham, leaves of collards, kale, kohlrabi, broccoli, beets and cauliflower are all edible and can be cooked together into a nutritious pot of greens with plenty of pot likker. Even though we love to slurp that Southern elixir I always set aside a few jars for freezing and use it to flavor the butter beans and cowpeas that are coming my way this summer.

This post has been shared on the HomeAcre Hop!  Please drop by and see what gardeners and homesteaders across the country are doing.

Tip of the Week – Week 7 in the Zone 9 Garden

This past weekend I planted my potatoes.  While planting I got a very pleasant surprise – more potatoes!  For the past two years I have wanted to try fall potatoes.  However, no one sells seed potatoes in the fall.  I had my best ever potato crop in the spring so this September I took my left overs and planted them.  We had a very mild winter.  I covered the potatoes once in December and once in January for light frosts.  Then I did not get them covered for the last freeze in January.  I thought the freeze ended my experiment.  I cut off the frozen vines and forgot about them.  That’s why I was so surprised this Sunday.  As I dug my trenches for my new potatoes, my fall potatoes were literally turning up all over the place.  I harvested over 20 lbs!  So, it looks like you definitely can grow fall potatoes in the Zone 9 Garden.  Below are more things to consider doing this weekend.

My latest garden experiment proves you can grow fall potatoes - at least in a mild winter

My latest garden experiment proves you can grow fall potatoes – at least in a mild winter

Vegetables

For a complete list of the vegetables you can plant now please check out the planting guide in the sidebar.  If you are not sure what particular vegetable varieties to plant check out Patty Leander’s variety list in the sidebar.  This is a great tool for new gardeners or for those of us who like to try different things.  Also be sure to look at her seed sources.  March 15 is go date for most of the veggies we like to grow in the Zone 9 spring garden.  If you don’t hurry it will soon be too late to order your seeds.

blog-Crimson_Glory_rose

Valentine’s Day is a great time to prune your roses.

Ornamentals

There are two times to prune roses – Labor Day and Valentine’s Day.  This weekend reduce the size of your hybrid roses by up to one half.  Also remove any dead wood.  It is also a great time to open up the center of the bush.  Most shrub roses will look beautiful if you have six to eight healthy, upright canes.  Remove all suckers that are smaller than a pencil and top foliage by cutting branches at a 45 degree angle above a bud.  Antique roses do not need as much pruning.  Reduce them by no more than a third, get rid of all dead wood and open up the centers.  DO NOT prune spring  blooming climbers until after their first bloom.

Lawns

It is still too early to apply commercial fertilizers to your lawn.  However it is a great time to aerate and add compost.  When fertilizing your lawn with compost, mow closely and then spread a half to one inch of compost over the lawn.  Rake it into the grass and water well.  Do not mow again for a least a week.  You can fertilize your lawn with compost 2,3 or 4 times a year.  You really can’t add too much.  Plus compost will often contain macro nutrients and trace elements that are missing from commercial fertilizers.

red_bud_blooms

Buds on my redbud trees mean that all trees will soon be breaking dormancy. Spray horticultural oils now for insect control later.

Trees and Shrubs

My redbud is beginning to bud out.  That is the first sign that trees are coming out of dormancy.  If you want to plant any fruit trees, bare root or containerized, do it soon.  The weather conditions that we have right now are perfect for allowing them to rapidly start producing the roots that will “establish” them in your landscape.

While your crepe myrtles are still bare, spray them with horticultural oil (also known as dormant oils) to mites and scale insects.  Horticultural, or dormant, oils are generally refined petroleum products.  They are great at controlling several pests in shrubs and fruit trees.  However, they are not organic.  Look for the organic equivalent that is made from cotton seed oil.  Another organic, Neem oil, shows some promise as a dormant oil and research is currently being done on its effectiveness.  Do not spray dormant oils after buds have broken on your trees and shrubs.

 

****Be sure to check out my friend Bart’s blog (Our Garden View) for more great tips for the Central and South Central garden!

 

I share my posts on the HomeAcre Hop.  Be sure to stop by the hop.  It has tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!

 

 

Tip of the Week – Week 6 in the Zone 9 Garden

I know that Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, but I think his prediction is wrong.  As I drive the back roads of Washington County, I see signs of an early spring everywhere.  Now I don’t want to jinx anything, but we are quickly approaching the date when a freeze is highly unlikely.  Because of this, there are many, many tasks to be done in the February zone 9 garden.  Below are the things I will be doing this weekend

potato-planting

Most years I grow La Soda reds and Kennebek whites. This year I was only able to find La Soda seed potatoes.

Vegetables

There are lots of veggies that can be planted this week.  For a complete list check out Patty Leander’s planting calendar on the sidebar of the blog.  Since I have planted about all of the seeds I can I am moving on to planting potatoes.  A couple of weeks ago I bought ten pounds of red La Soda.  I cut them into pieces and have allowed them to “scab” in the kitchen.  Plant them 4” deep in loose soil that is in full sun.

larkspur

Larkspur is so pretty and so reliable. Plant this self-seeding annual once and you may be able to enjoy it for a lifetime.

Ornamentals

It is not too late to plant snap dragons (but is getting close).  Place these transplants about a foot apart in full sun.  Give them an extra boost with blood meal.  Blood meal is a great source of organic nitrogen.  The recommended rate is one cup per five feet of row.

If you have not cut back your ornamental grasses, cannas, gingers, asters, salvias and woody perennials, do it now.  It is also a great time to start mulching.  I love mulch and use it extensively.  It suppresses weeds, conserves moisture and insulates roots.  Plus, if you use natural mulches, they turn into compost that will feed your plants.

I have tons of poppies, larkspur, marigolds and bachelor buttons (gomphrena) that come back every year.  Be careful not to cover these self-seeding annuals with mulch or pull the tender starts while you are weeding.

acetic-acid-weed-killer

Concentrated acetic acid makes a great organic weed killer

Lawns

My wife mowed for the first time this past weekend.    While the stuff that passes for grass at my house is not growing, lots of weeds are.  A weekly mowing will prevent lots of these weeds from going to seed and spreading their problems into future years.  For weeds that can’t be reached with a mower use acetic acid as a good natural herbicide.  Don’t think you can get by with household vinegar.  Real weed killing power is found in the concentrated form at your local garden supply center.

If you are into organic weed control, start putting out corn gluten meal (CGM) now.  A weekly application during February is a very effective pre-emergent for all broadleaf weeds.  Besides cost, there is absolutely no down side to CGM.  Apply CGM at a rate of 20 lbs per thousand square feet of lawn.  If you have more lawn than money you can also use CGM as a natural fertilizer.  Apply 10 pounds per 1000 square feet to give yor lawn a great boost of natural nitrogen.

 

****Be sure to check out my friend Bart’s blog (Our Garden View) for more great tips for the Central and South Central garden!

This post has been shared on the HomeAcre Hop.  Be sure to stop by the hop.  It has tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!

Tip of the Week – Week 4 in the Zone 9 Garden

We got over an inch of rain at my house last night.  We are expected to get another inch today.  I am thankful but I hope the sun comes out tomorrow.  If it is not too muddy there are tons of tasks to take care of this weekend.  Here are some of the things I am doing:

Vegetables

Week 4 in the Zone 9 garden is a very busy time.  It is time to replant all of your brassicas.  The brassica family includes broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and others.  Click on each veggie above to read Patty Leander’s tips for growing the best brassicas possible.

Patty also wrote a great post about sugar snap peas.  It is time to plant those as well.  This year she has had great luck with “Amish” heirlooms.  Get all the info you need to succeed with peas by reading her post  “Make Room for Cool Season Peas”.

Week four is also the time to plant potatoes.  The two varieties that do best for me are Red LaSoda and white Kennebecks.  Buy now, cut into pieces preserving the eyes and allow to cure for a week or so before planting.  Check out my post “Growing Potatoes” to learn all the other tips and tricks you need.

Cauliflower doesn't have to be white!  Try some of the colored varieties.  Photo by Bruce Leander

Cauliflower doesn’t have to be white! Try some of the colored varieties. Photo by Bruce Leander

Ornamentals

Patty’s latest post reminded me that it is time to cut back your cannas (and ginger).  Cut them to the ground.  Here’s another canna tip.  When they start blooming, cut their flower stalks out at the base of the plant.  This will encourage them to bloom more.

It is also a good time to trim up woody perennials.  My bougainvillea has shed its leaves so it is ready for its annual haircut.  Trim up other deciduous vines like coral honeysuckle, cross vine and wisteria.

If you want lots of flowers in early spring, start their seeds now.  Two years ago I grew 100 marigold transplants.  My beds never looked better.  This weekend is a good time to start marigolds, petunias, begonias, periwinkles and many others.

marigolds

Fruit

It is still a good time to plant bare root fruit trees.  It is also a great time to plant container grown fruit trees.  Container grown fruit trees can be planted anytime of the year but they will root in and become established quicker if you plant them now.

****Be sure to check out my friend Bart’s blog (Our Garden View) for more great tips for the Central and South Central garden!

This post has been shared on the HomeAcre Hop.  Be sure to stop by the hop.  Tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!

Brassicas Rule, Cannas Drool by Patty G. Leander

Cannas may be beautiful in the summer time, but they sure aren’t very pretty after a freeze. Mine bit the dust right around Christmas, when Old Man Winter showed up and decided to stick around for awhile. Of course my small bed of canna lilies dies back every year yet every year I am amazed at the contrast of the gloomy canna skeletons against the vibrant greens, purples and reds of the brassicas that shrug off the cold weather and keep on growing, proving once again that they deserve a prime spot in the winter garden.

cannas-freeze-damage

Canna lilies would prefer to spend their winter on a tropical island (me too!) but they’ll be back this summer. Photo by Bruce Leander

Seasoned gardeners are well aware of these gems of the winter garden, but for novice gardeners and those who have been on the fence about a winter garden, I’d like to share a few easy-to-grow vegetables to consider planting next fall.

Chinese-Cabbage

Mustards, kale and Chinese cabbages love the cold weather. Photo by Bruce Leander

I usually plant sugar snap peas twice a year, mid-September and late January. This year I planted a vining variety from Seed Savers Exchange, called ‘Amish Snap’, on September 17. I started picking on November 11 and plants were still producing in December even after several light freezes. On January 8th we experienced a freeze with temperatures that fell into the low 20s; the plants survived but the peas took a hit (Note: a more diligent gardener would have harvested the pods before the arrival of a predicted hard freeze!). The outer pods were damaged but many of the peas inside were perfectly edible, with a flavor slightly reminiscent of, well, frozen peas. Since the vines are healthy and the weather is mild, I’ll leave the vines for now to see if I’ll get a another flush of blooms and pods, but in the meantime I’ll seed another round of peas for a spring harvest.

Amish-Snap-Peas

‘Amish Snap’ peas: planting seeds in September, ready to harvest in November, freeze damage in January. Photo by Bruce Leander

Swiss chard, beets and spinach do not belong to the brassica family but they are ideal specimens for a winter garden.

beets-in-hand

Beets that were seeded in September have provided roots and lovely greens all winter long. Photo by Bruce Leander

Other stalwarts for the winter garden include onions, spinach, carrots and almost every herb you can imagine, except basil. We still have cold winter days ahead and any of these vegetable or herbs could be planted this month to bridge the gap between winter and spring.

multiplying-onions

Multiplying onions look grow so well in the winter garden, and they look great too! Photo by Bruce Leander

winter-mint

Brighten up your winter meals with the fresh flavor of multiplier onions, mint, dill and oregano.

Tip of the Week – Week 3 in the Zone 9 Garden

There are two things that really need to be done in January in the lower two thirds of our state–starting tomato, pepper and egg plant seeds for transplant and planting asparagus.  It is also time to start pruning fruit trees, grapes and perennial ornamentals that have been killed by the freeze.

Vegetables

I don’t want to sound like a nag, but this week is THE PERFECT TIME to plant your tomato seeds.  You can also start your pepper and eggplant seeds too.  Eggplant will germinate much like the tomato seeds but be prepared to give you pepper seeds a little extra time to sprout.

Besides tomatoes, asparagus is my absolute favorite vegetable to grow and eat.  Plant year old crowns now.  My favorite is the heirloom “Mary Washington”.  However, I have had much luck with many varieties of the “Jersey” series.  For more information on planting asparagus check out my post “Growing Asparagus”.

planting-asparagus-crowns

When planting, spread the roots of asparagus crowns over a mound of compost

Ornamentals

Now that we have had a freeze, it is time to trim back some of our perennials.  Clumping grasses can be cut back to about ten inches.  If your grass clumps did not bloom this year consider dividing them in February.  Salvias can be cut back to half of their size.  Root Beer plant (Hoja Santo) can be cut to the ground.

ornamental-grass

Cut clumping grasses back to 10 to 12 inches

Fruit

January and February are the best times to plant bare root fruit trees.  Plant them at the depth they were grown.  Determine this depth by noticing where the color changes at the top of the roots and the bottom of the trunk.

January is also a good time to prune fruit trees and grapes in the lower two thirds of our state.

****Be sure to check out my friend Bart’s blog (Our Garden View) for more great tips for the Central and South Central garden!

This post has been shared on the HomeAcre Hop.  Be sure to stop by the hop.  Tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!

peach-blossom

January is good time to prune fruit trees. Definitely do a little research before you start cutting.

Winter Garden Chores

There is always something to do in the Texas garden – even in the winter.  Granted, winter does kind of reduce the number of tasks, but our mild winter ensures that we can be outside tending or growing something every single month of the year.  While there are several tasks in winter that can help us get our gardening fix, winter gardening does have its challenges.  It seems like every time I need to weed or plant or harvest it is either raining or miserably cold.  Sunday was a perfect example of this.  Despite the cold and the standing water in my rows, nature had decided to provide me with a bountiful brassica harvest; as long as I was man enough to brave the elements and harvest it.

The broccoli I harvested this weekend was planted on Sept. 28.  It will continue to produce for me until April or May.  Photo by Bruce Leander.

The broccoli I harvested this weekend was planted on Sept. 28. It will continue to produce for me until April or May. Photo by Bruce Leander.

I am proud to say, I sucked it up and was richly rewarded for my efforts.  Once I got in the garden and started cutting my cole crops I didn’t even notice the cold.  Before long I had harvested six pounds of broccoli, some gumbo onions, a bunch of baby carrots and a three pound head of cauliflower.  I don’t know about you but nothing gets my garden juices flowing more than a good harvest.  As I worked I actually forgot about the cold and enjoyed myself in my muddy little garden.  When I brought the veggies in  I was reminded again why I love gardening in Texas.  I really can enjoy healthy, organic produce year round.

While I was in the garden I also noticed lots of broad leaf weeds that were doing about as well as the broccoli.  So, while I was out I took the hoe to them.  Hoeing is not nearly as much work on a 40 degree day. Because it was such a “pleasant afternoon” I actually enjoyed chopping through all of the dandelions and thistles that were popping up.

This weekend I harvested my first cauliflower of the season - a three pounder!  Photo by Bruce Leander

This weekend I harvested my first cauliflower of the season – a three pounder! Photo by Bruce Leander

Luckily, not all winter gardening chores have to be done outside.  It is currently time to do what I consider the most important gardening task of the entire year —STARTING YOUR TOMATO TRANSPLANTS!!!  If you live in zone 9 you need to get your seeds started by January 15 to ensure you have big, healthy transplants on March 15.  My friend, and MOH contributor, Patty Leander has a great article in this month’s Texas Gardener magazine on growing your own tomatoes from seed.  If you don’t subscribe I really recommend picking up this issue.  Her article is awesome.

It is time to start those tomato seeds!  There is no other way to ensure you have the varieties you want when planting time comes.  Photo by Bruce Leander

It is time to start those tomato seeds! There is no other way to ensure you have the varieties you want when planting time comes. Photo by Bruce Leander

Growing Sweet Potatoes (Ipomoae batatas)

My wife and I love sweet potatoes.  In fact, we love them so much that we eat everything we grow and still need to buy a fifty pound box of “Beauregard” potatoes from a friend that goes to Louisiana every November.

Sweet-potato-1

Sweet potatoes are delicious, versatile and nutritious. Photo by Bruce Leander

Now I have to admit, I have not always loved sweet potatoes this much.  When I was a kid my family only ate sweet potatoes at “the holidays”.  Our Thanksgiving and Christmas “sweet potatoes “ came in the form of a mushy, orange bowl of goo dripping in syrup and covered in baked marshmallows.  Now you would think that with that much sweetness going for it, I would look forward to the holidays.  Well, I didn’t.  I hated this mushy mess (and so did everyone under 40 that I knew at the time) and it made me dread Holiday dinners.  Even though I loved the turkey and dressing, ambrosia and pea salad, I knew it would all be ruined by that sticky, slimy mess that my mother would force me to eat.

I am not sure how or when it happened, but sometime in the past few years my opinion of sweet potatoes changed.  Sweet potatoes have now become a staple in my (and many other Americans) diet.  As interest in healthy eating has surged the popularity of the sweet potato has sky rocketed.  And why not?  Sweet potatoes are loaded with vitamin B6, vitamin C and vitamin D.  They are also full of iron, magnesium, potassium and carotenoids like beta carotene.  Plus, they are full of natural sugars (that make them taste so great when cooked properly) that are actually good for you.

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Patty Leander plants here home grown sweet potato slips in her Austin garden. Photo by Bruce Leander

Making Slips

In my experience, the hardest part about growing sweet potatoes is finding them.  Sweet potatoes are generally grown from “slips” (however they DO NOT HAVE TO BE, read my post on growing sweet potatoes from the actual potato).  Slips are simply sprouts that grow out of a mature sweet potato.  If you have access to a local producer/seller of slips you will have no problem.  In my experience, it is getting harder and harder to find people who are willing to grow, harvest and sell their slips locally.  If this is the position you find yourself in you have two choices – go to the internet and hope for the best or grow your own.

Slips are easy to grow, so I grow my own.  Since we buy 50 lbs of Beauregards each year I always keep a few of those back for seed potatoes.  You can do this with any variety you like.  If you find a variety you like at the store keep a few back.  If using store bought potatoes look at the skins closely.  Some are sprayed with wax to extend their shelf life.  If they have wax on them they will not sprout well for you.  Look for unwaxed varieties if you want to use them for seed.

 

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Sweet potatoes can be planted from March through July in in Central Texas. Photo by Bruce Leander.

Before we talk about how to grow your own, we need to discuss when to start growing them.  Before you grow your slips you have to determine when you are going to plant them.  In my Zone 9 garden I can plant sweet potatoes anytime between March 15 and July 4.  Determine when you want to plant and then start your slips about six weeks before you want to move them to the garden. I like to plant my sweet potatoes a little later than most folks.  I usually plant around June 1.  To meet that planting date I need to start my slip production around the first of April.

I have had good luck making slips by placing tooth picks in the side of the tuber and submerging the bottom half of it in water.  For best results place your tubers in a sunny location where they will be between 75 and 85 degrees.  In a few days, the eyes will begin to produce the shoots that you will use as your slips.  These shoots will grow straight up from tuber.  When they are about 6” long snap them off with a twisting motion where they touch the sweet potato.  If you look closely you will see little roots already beginning to form where the slip grows out from the tuber.  Try and get those little roots when snap the slip off.  Once you have harvested the slips move them to another container of water.  In about a week, the slips in the jar will create a pretty extensive root system.  Once the slips put on roots they are ready for planting.  You can either move them directly to the garden at this point or you can pot them up and let them become established for later planting.

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Sweet potatoes can easily produce three or four pounds of tubers per row foot. Photo by Bruce Leander.

While I have had success with the tuber in water method, I have had two problems with it.  The first is rotting tubers.  If you leave your potato in water too long it will become mushy and begin to stink to high heaven.  The second issue has to do with the slips.  If you leave them in water for too long the will grow an EXTENSIVE root system.  When I have planted these overgrown slips I have not had good luck getting them to grow when I put them in the soil.  Because of this, I recommend planting, or potting your slips soon after the roots begin to form.

Planting and Growing

Since sweet potatoes grow below ground, it is best to plant them in a loose soil.  Sandy loam is perfect.  Loose soil will allow them to get big and form attractively shaped tubers.  However, the main reason you want to grow in loose soil will become very evident when you try and harvest them.  It can be very hard to get the undamaged roots out of heavy soils like the black clay I grow in.  If you don’t have sand or loam you can still grow sweet potatoes.  Make beds that are about a foot tall and very well worked with compost.

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Sweet potatoes produce lovely and lush edible vines. Photo by Bruce Leander.

Plant your sweet potatoes in full sun.  Sweet potatoes are tropical vining plants.  Because of this they love high heat and full sun.  My beds run east to west so my plants can get the most sunlight possible.

I grow my sweet potatoes in a single bed that is 33‘ long and about 10’ wide.  To plant my slips I drive a large screw driver into the center of the bed and swirl it around to make a hole about every 12″.  I then drop the slip in and firm up the soil around it.  Once the slips are planted I water every other day for a couple of weeks to ensure that those young tender roots get fully established before the heat of our summers really kicks in.

Once the sweet potatoes are in all you have to do is water and wait.  These tropical vines will thrive on a twice a week watering schedule.  Once the vines start spreading do not add any supplement nitrogen.  Too much nitrogen will encourage the plant to make big beautiful foliage and small fibrous roots.

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To grow the biggest sweet potatoes possible grow them in a loose soil. Photo by Bruce Leander.

Harvest and storage

Sweet potatoes take 100 to 140 days to mature fully.  However, you can harvest them at any stage of their development.  Once they reach that 100 day point start watching their foliage.  When they are ready the leaves will begin to turn yellow and the vines will begin to look less full and healthy.

If you plan on storing your sweet potatoes you must dig them carefully.  Knicks or breaks in the skin will encourage rot during storage.  When you get ready to harvest take a garden spade and work it into the soil just beyond the end of the vine.  Gently turn the soil over to expose your tubers.  Pick these up and then continue moving toward the center of the row.  Sweet potatoes can produce tubers anywhere along their vines.  Because of this you will want to turn over all of the soil in the bed.

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Sweet potato skins are tender. use a spade to carefully remove them from the soil. Photo by Bruce Leander.

When harvesting your potatoes do not wash them immediately.  Separate the unblemished potatoes from those that have knicks or cuts.  Go ahead and wash the damaged potatoes and take them inside.  You will want to eat these first.  Next, take the unblemished potatoes and lay them out in the sun for several hours to allow them to cure.  When the roots come out of the ground their skins are very tender.  Laying them in the sun will allow the skins to “set” or harden off before they go into storage.  It will also dry out the soil that is still clinging to the tubers.  Gently brush this soil off before moving them into storage.

Once you have cleaned your sweet potatoes spread them out in baskets that are lined with newspaper.  Place them in a dry area that is around 85 degrees for a couple more weeks.  At the end of this time the sweet potatoes are cured and can be stored for several months.  Store your potatoes in a cool location that has high humidity.  Proper storage will allow you to store your potatoes for several months.

Jalapeño Sweet Potato Soup

Sally and I eat sweet potatoes year round.  Generally we cut them into fries and toss with peppers, onions, olive oil and spices and then bake them at 450 degrees for 30 or 40 minutes.  However, each fall, we use them to make a soup that is ABSOLUTELY AMAZING!  We got this recipe from our friends at Homestead Heritage in Waco several years ago.  I highly recommend you make this soup.  It is truly the best soup I have ever eaten!

4 lbs Sweet Potatoes

1 medium onion

3 slice smoked turkey bacon or ham

3 cloves garlic

2TBSP Butter

8 cups Chicken Broth

1 tsp cumin

¼ cup pickled, sliced jalapeños

½ cup cilantro (leaves only)

1 ½ cups half and half

1 tsp salt

1 tsp black pepper

Optional sweetener to taste

*Scrub sweet potatoes, cut in quarters, place in large stock pan, cover with water and boil until soft

*When potatoes are soft drain them and let them cool until you can handle them.  Peel of skins

*Peel and chop onion.  Finely chop bacon or ham and garlic

*In large soup pot, melt butter.  Add meat, onion and garlic and sautee until onions are translucent

*Add chicken broth.  Cover and bring to a boil.

*Dice half of the sweet potatoes and stir into the boiling broth

*Puree the remaining sweet potatoes with the jalapenos, cumin, cilantro and half and half.  Stir into soup.  Add salt and pepper.  Stir well, heat through.

* Taste.  Add sweetener if desired

 

Grow Luscious Lettuce (Lactuca sativa)

Lettuce is a very interesting crop to me.  Most people I know eat a ton of it.  However, I have never had anyone tell me that lettuce is their favorite vegetable of all time.  In fact, if you asked ten people to name their favorite vegetables, I am willing to bet that lettuce would not make anyone’s list.  At its best, lettuce is a just an exceptional supporting character.  While you won’t find many recipes that feature lettuce, we all know that our salads and sandwiches are much better when lettuce is a part of them.

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Lettuce may not be your favorite food but it sure makes a lot of your favorite foods better!

People have been eating lettuce for a very long time.  Scientists believe that lettuce was domesticated about 5000 years ago in ancient Egypt.  Sometime around that time period, the Egyptians started turning a weed whose seeds they used for oils and medicines into a leafy food source.  The Egyptians eventually shared lettuce with the Greeks and the Greeks eventually shared it with the Romans.  In fact, the term “lettuce” came from the Roman name for the plant “lactuca”.

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Since lettuce readily cross pollinates, breeders have built a wide array of varieties

Since lettuce cross pollenates easily, breeders have produced a wide array of plant types and colorations.  Lettuce types range from loose, frilly leaved varieties to the tight balls of leaves you see in iceberg lettuce.  Lettuce coloration can vary from pale green to deep burgundy with some varigations that have both colors.  Because of this range of colors and forms I use lettuce as an ornamental as much as I do for its nutritive qualities.  Lettuce is generally broken up into seven categories based on leaf structure and use.  These categories are leaf, romaine, crisphead, butterhead, summercrisp, stem and oilseed.  Seeds of the first five are readily available to the home gardener.

Lettuce's many colors and textures make it as useful in the flower bed as it is in the kitchen garden. Photo by Patty Leander

Lettuce’s many colors and textures make it as useful in the flower bed as it is in the kitchen garden. Photo by Patty Leander

Growing Lettuce – Lettuce is a great crop for the beginning gardener.  It is fairly easy to grow and it is quick to harvest.  However, lettuce does have a couple of problems you need to be aware of before you plant.  First, lettuce of all types hates high heat.  Sustained temperatures over 75 degrees will make lettuce “bolt”.  Bolting is a term that is used to describe the process where some trigger (heat or stress like drought, weed competition or pests) makes the leafy, edible plant we eat produce a tall stalk that flowers and seeds.  Once this happens lettuce leaves become tough and bitter.  Second, just about every pest known to the gardener likes lettuce as much as we do.  Be aware that if you grow lettuce for many seasons you will eventually have problems with mammals, bugs, bacteria and viruses.

Baby lettuce in a square foot garden.  Photo by Bruce Leander

Baby lettuce in a square foot garden. Photo by Bruce Leander

Here are some basics for growing lettuce.  In addition to cool temperatures (45 to 75 F are preferred by most varieties), most lettuce prefers a soil that is slightly acidic.  Most lettuce varieties do best in soils with a pH of 6.5 to 6.8.  With so much crossbreeding going on with lettuce you can find varieties that will tolerate more alkaline soils.  Lettuce also likes loose, nitrogen rich soil.  Since the plants have a relatively small root system they need ample water and nutrition in the soil to help them thrive.  Also, even though many varieties will tolerate some shade, most prefer at least 6 hours of sunlight a day.

When it comes time to plant remember that lettuce seeds actually need light to germinate.  Because of this, cover them lightly with soil when you plant.  If you plant the seeds  too deeply they will never germinate. When I grow romaine or heading type lettuces I start my plants indoors in coir pellets around the first week of September.  I then transplant them in late September or early October.  I place my transplants about a foot apart for head types and six inches apart for upright types.  Lettuce that is planted too close together deprives the plants of sunlight they need to thrive and also invites in a large number of pests.

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I use lettuce to line the beds of my potager

When planting leaf type lettuce I direct sow the seeds in my garden beds.  I dig a shallow furrow with my Cobrahead Hand Hoe and then sprinkle the little seeds down the row.  Once the seeds germinate I thin to allow at least 6” between plants.  Lettuce needs sunlight to develop color and nutrients.  Lettuce that is planted too closely together will be stunted, pale and low in nutrients.

When trying to establish seeds it is important to keep your seed bed consistently moist.  Since these little seeds were basically planted on top of the ground, their first roots are often exposed to air.  If your seed beds are too dry, these little roots will dry out and die.

Lettuce does not compete well with weeds.  Keep your beds weed free to ensure the best quality lettuce.  Photo by Bruce Leander

Lettuce does not compete well with weeds. Keep your beds weed free to ensure the best quality lettuce. Photo by Bruce Leander

Once your little plants are established you want to keep the area around them weed free.  Lettuce has a small root system.  Most plants only have some type of small taproot and then a few lateral roots.  Weeds can easily suck up the moisture that these plants need to thrive.   Also, if lettuce feels stress from weeds it will begin to bolt.

Since most varieties of lettuce are ready to harvest in about 45 days you should not need to fertilize if you plant in a bed that has been well worked with organic material.  However, if you want the biggest and greenest leaves possible you can provide a weekly supplement of compost tea or other liquid organic product.  If using a commercial product (like Miracle grow), mix the solution at half the recommended rate and apply weekly.

Lettuce is plagued by a variety of pests.  Once your plants are established begin to watch for bug damage or signs of disease

Lettuce is plagued by a variety of pests. Once your plants are established begin to watch for bug damage or signs of disease

Once your plants become established begin to watch for problems.  Bunnies love lettuce and so do many different caterpillars and bugs.  If bugs become a problem you can apply a translucent row cover to help keep them away.  Diseases are a different matter.  There are several bacterial and viral agents that can attack your lettuce crop.  These agents can cause leaf wilt, leaf spot, curled leaves, rot and even death.  If you believe you have a virus or bacterial infection you need to remove the plants as soon as possible.

Since lettuce is a cool season plant you always have to be prepared to manage unexpected freezing temperatures.  Luckily, even though lettuce is about 96% water, it is a fairly hardy plant.  Most varities can survive temperatures as low as 28 without much damage.  If it is going to get colder than that you will need to cover them.  While some varieties can take a freeze down to 24 degrees, temps this cold will burn the leaves of almost all varieties.  To extended their life as long as possible in cold weather, mulch heavily and set up hoops so you can easily apply row cover.

20121030-007 One more thing, lettuce is a great container plant.  I love growing lettuce in containers because I can keep them close to my house for easy harvest and so I can easily bring them inside when temperatures plummet.  With so many textures and colors it is easy to make lovely and edible potted arrangements to keep by the back door.  Plus, if you plant the leafy or romaine types, you can snip off the outer leaves for smaller harvests and keep the same plants producing for months.

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