The Fall Factor Means a Slower Pace by Patty G. Leander

So long summer, fall has arrived

So long summer, fall has arrived

Summer has released its grip, hundred-degree days are gone till next year (we hope!) and being outdoors is invigorating rather than exhausting. The transition to fall here in Central Texas is complete. We got a taste of chilly temperatures recently with a couple of nights that dipped into the 40s but overall the weather looks great: 70s and 80s during the day with lows in the 60s. The weather may seem idyllic right now but the days are getting shorter, the sun is less intense and as the season progresses plants can grow at an agonizingly slow pace. This is often referred to as the fall factor.

‘White Russian’ (left) and ‘Winterbor’ kale can handle frigid temperatures that plummet into the 20s

‘White Russian’ (left) and ‘Winterbor’ kale can handle frigid temperatures that plummet into the 20s

 Leafy greens, including spinach, collards, mustard, kale, Swiss chard and Asian greens, are easily transplanted now and should do fine since their leaves can be eaten at any size, but broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage are more particular and may not have enough time to head up before freezing weather arrives. Quick-growing varieties of radishes and turnips can be seeded now though slow growth means it may take an extra week or so to reach harvestable size. It’s been my experience that carrots planted this late in the season will likely stall during the coldest part of winter but will take up growing again as the days grow longer in January and February.  So much is dependent on the weather.

kale-collards

Established plantings of kale, collards and mustard seem to handle freezing weather just fine

That said die-hard gardeners will be seeding and planting all winter, covering crops with frost blankets, fighting blustery winds, cussing and arguing with Mother Nature as they go. Been there, done that. Frankly I’m a cold weather wuss so I do most of my planting in late summer and early fall (in the heat, sweating and cursing) and hope to harvest most of my crops in November and December. I grow plenty of kale, collards and mustard since they ask little of me over the winter, but by Christmas I’m ready to curl up with my seed catalogs until mid-January when I’ll take advantage of the occasional warm and sunny days to prepare for late winter and early spring planting. Experimenting is always fun and is a great way to learn what grows best in your microclimate and also gives you an idea of how much work is required.  Over time you’ll settle on an approach that works for you.

cauliflower

Pull the leaves around white cauliflower to keep it bright white

Keep your crops growing vigorously with a regular dose of water soluble fertilizer every 10-14 days. The key to a successful head of broccoli or cauliflower is to grow a big plant with big leaves before the head even begins to develop. White varieties of cauliflower should be shielded from sun exposure to maintain their snow-white color. Some varieties are self-blanching, meaning their leaves wrap around the head to protect it from the sun, but otherwise tie up the large outer leaves with a rubber band, a clothespin or string. As cauliflower and broccoli reach maturity monitor their development closely and harvest the heads while the buds are still tight.

Broccoli produces a main head and then continues with an encore of side shoots

Broccoli produces a main head and then continues with an encore of side shoots

Once the main head of broccoli is harvested you will be rewarded with numerous (and delicious) side shoots. Cauliflower only produces one head and once harvested spent plants can be removed from the garden. Before you toss the plants remove and trim any leaves that are in good condition – they can be added to the pot when cooking collard and mustard greens. If you missed the window for planting broccoli and cauliflower this fall don’t worry, you will have another chance in the early spring season of 2018.

Lettuce can go in as transplants or seed can be broadcast and harvested as baby leaves

Lettuce can go in as transplants or seed can be broadcast and harvested as baby leaves

Lettuce can be grown from seed or transplants. It is a quick-growing winter crop and there are many colorful varieties to choose from. The tiny seed requires light to germinate so scatter the seeds over the soil, press down lightly and mist daily. Don’t plant a whole row at once unless you really, and I mean really, love lettuce. Tender, succulent lettuce just isn’t a good candidate for canning, freezing or drying, so it is best to plant a few seeds or a short row every week or two for a continuous harvest. Combine seed from a few different varieties and broadcast for a homegrown mesclun mix. Lettuce also grows great in a pot or other container. While collards and kale are sturdy enough to handle freezing weather – their flavor actually improves after exposure to frost – lettuce plants will benefit from row cover protection if the temperature is going to drop below freezing.

Purple mustard and Swiss chard add texture and color to the landscape.

Purple mustard and Swiss chard add texture and color to the landscape.

Swiss chard, spinach, collards, kale and other leafy greens can be grown through the winter with minimum care; you can harvest a few outer leaves a couple of times a week and the plant will keep growing from the center. The young leaves are great for salads or sautés and larger leaves are good in soups and stews. Pretty up your edible landscape with pockets of leafy greens in brilliant hues. ‘Osaka’ purple mustard, ’Toscano’ kale and ‘Bright Lights’ Swiss chard are all outstanding varieties. Culinary herbs and cool-season annuals like violas, dianthus, snapdragons, pansies, stock and alyssum also add color and fragrance to the garden.

If you have not grown vegetables before, now is a great time to take advantage of fall’s cooler temperatures, increased precipitation and best of all – fewer insects. Once you experience the satisfaction and pride of growing your own tasty, nutritious, home-grown vegetables, you may find yourself looking for additional gardening space in spring!

Prepare Now For Fall/Winter Vegetable Harvest by Keith C. Hansen

All of this heat reminds me of a line from an old country song – “It’s too hot to fish and too hot for golf”.  Unfortunately for those of us that garden in Texas in the fall and winter, it is not too hot  garden.  I spent about eight very hot and sweaty hours in the garden this past weekend getting my garden ready for the fall and winter.  If you have not already started your garden you are a little behind schedule.  My friend Kieth Hansen recently retired from his role as Horticultural Extension Agent in the Tyler area.  While doing some reading last week I came upon an article he wrote a while back that does as good a job as anything I have ever seen at helping you prepare now for your fall and winter harvests.  I was so impressed with the article that I asked if I could rerun it here.  Kieth is an outstanding horticulturist and an outstanding writer.  Once you read this I am sure you will want to jump over to his website,  East Texas Gardening blog, and check it out.

Keith Hansen, retired AgriLife Extension horticulturist for Smith County, examines one of the tree in the IDEA Garden at the Rose Complex on Monday in Tyler.

Keith Hansen, retired AgriLife Extension horticulturist for Smith County, examines one of the tree in the IDEA Garden at the Rose Complex on Monday in Tyler.

Prepare Now For Fall/Winter Vegetable Harvest by Keith C. Hansen

 

Mid-July means two things: the dog days of summer and fall vegetable gardens. Everyone can relate to dog days – it’s hot and humid, good only for dogs to find a cool spot to dig a hole.

But fall gardens? In July? That’s right! Mid-Summer is the time to begin preparing and planting the garden for a fall harvest.

The first key for a successful fall garden is to get the weeds out. And if Bermuda or bahia grass are among those weeds, you can’t just rototill everything under because once you start watering and fertilizing again, you’ll have the greenest lawn in town.

Solarization is one method to reduce weeds, and other pests, by using the sun’s energy to pasteurize the upper layer of soil. However, this takes time. Prepare the soil, removing garden debris and weeds, form your beds, and then thoroughly water the soil. Cover the prepared area with clear polyethylene, sealing the edges with soil, to trap the sun’s heat. This doesn’t sterilize the soil, but reduces populations of harmful nematodes, weeds and other pests. It’s critical that his is done during July and August, the hottest time of the year. Treat for at least 6 to 8 weeks. You won’t get to plant tomatoes or peppers, but the garden site will be ready in time to plant cool-season vegetables. Solarizing-Weeds

Another non-chemical method of killing weeds is to smother them under 6 to 8 layers of wet newspaper, and then cover this layer with pine needles, old hay or grass clippings. Whenever weeds like Bermuda grass shows up through the edges, place another layer of paper over it. By continually denying them light, they’ll eventually weaken and die. Transplant through the papers, or just use them in the pathways. The paper will be mostly decomposed by next spring.

newspaper-mulch

using newspaper and mulch is a great way to smother weeds in your garden

Hand digging is another option for real small plots, but take care not to get heat stroke; work early in the morning before it gets too hot.

If the garden spot has perennial weeds, like Bermuda, you can spray the weeds in an empty garden site with a weed killer that contains glyphosate. Some brand names for glyphosate include: Roundup, Kleenup, and Weed Away. Check the ingredients on the label for the term glyphosate” and follow label instructions for application rate. Glyphosate will not stay in the soil; it is strictly a foliar weed killer, but it kills roots and all. It takes about 2 weeks to completely kill Bermuda, maybe slightly longer if the weeds are under drought stress. It works best if weeds are healthy, actively growing and not suffering from lack of water. Remember, the garden spot must be empty to use glyphosate! Read the label completely before using.

While not as effective as Round Up, concentrated acetic acid is a good, organic weed killer that will work on both grassy and broad leafed weeds

While not as effective as Round Up, concentrated acetic acid is a good, organic weed killer that will work on both grassy and broad leafed weeds

There are also organic herbicides formulated with oils and soaps that will kill many tender annual weeds, but will not eliminate Bermuda and other perennial weeds with one application.

For future weed control, once you have your garden prepared, always maintain some sort of mulch covering the surface of the soil to prevent weeds from taking over again.

Every time you prepare the soil to plant a new crop, always mix in as much compost as you can get your hands on. Add well-decomposed animal manure, fertilizer and lime if soil tests indicate a low fertility or pH, and work all ingredients into the soil.

finished-compost

Compost helps sandy soils retain moisture and clay soils drain. It also supplies plant ready nutrients slowly and consistently.

Southern peas such as blackeye, purplehull, cream and crowders make a great, edible summer cover crop for building the soil and providing food. The pea vines can be mowed and rototilled under while still green for extra soil building benefits or allowed to produce peas and then tilled under.

Tomatoes and peppers need to be planted soon – by the first of August – if they are going to make a good crop before first frost. What if your garden spot is not yet ready? Buy your transplants now and grow them in a larger container to plant in the garden later.

*****Check out our planting guidelines in the sidebar to see when you need to put out your favorite vegetble seeds and transplants.

Get either 6-pack transplants or 4-inch transplants. Put them in a 1- or 3-gallon nursery container filled with potting soil. Do not use soil from your garden. Add slow release fertilizer (like Osmocote or other slow release formulation) to the soil mix. Set the pots in a sunny spot in the yard, not in the shade!

tomato-seedlings

When watering seedlings uses a water soluble fertilizer or compost tea

Every time you water, use a water-soluble fertilizer solution instead of just plain water. Your transplants will continue to grow and be healthy, just as if you have transplanted them directly into the ground. Once your garden site is ready, you will have large, healthy tomato and pepper plants to set out. They will be easier to take care of and you will be assured of a bountiful harvest before the first freeze of winter.

Grow fast maturing tomato varieties for the fall harvest. Look for varieties with less than 75 days to maturity, such as ‘Merced’, ‘Bingo’, ‘Celebrity’, ‘Whirlaway’, and ‘Carnival’. ‘Surefire’ is a smaller, processing tomato variety (with thicker skin) which sets and matures all of its tomatoes very quickly, giving you a “surefire” harvest that beats the first freeze. Most cherry tomatoes will bear within 65 days of transplanting.

Timing is very important for a successful fall garden. Heat tolerant/cold sensitive crops need to be planted in time to mature before cold weather slows and stops growth, while cool season/heat sensitive crops are planted late enough to avoid the heat, but early enough to take the first frosts of winter.

Seeded vegetables can be tricky to get up in the heat of summer. Soil often forms a crust on the surface after tillage and watering. This “crust” can hinder tender seedlings from breaking through. Here are a couple of tips to help get seedlings up in the summer.

bean-seeds

Open a furrow down the row as you normally would to sow the seeds. Before sowing, take your garden hose and thoroughly soak the bottom of the seed furrow with water. Next sow the seed. Finally, cover the seed to the proper depth with dry soil and firm. The seed should stay moist enough until germination, and if you avoid overhead watering, the soil will not form a crust to hinder seedling emergence.

Other folks will place a board or wet burlap over the seed row to provide constant dampness to encourage germination and emergence. You need to check every day for signs of emergence, and remove the covering when you see the first seedlings breaking through.

I share my posts on The Simple Homestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by and check out all the amazing things these gardeners and homesteaders are doing!

A Look Back at Spring by Patty G. Leander

scarecrow

Butterbeans on the trellis are slow growing now but will perk up when the weather cools slightly.

Texas has a long growing season. If you know what to plant and when to plant you can grow vegetables year-round, and many dedicated gardeners and farmers {thankfully} do just that. But the triple digit temperatures, lack of rain and water restrictions truly test the limits of both garden and gardener this time of year, leading us into a sort of heat-induced dormancy.

long-beans

Long beans can take the heat and still produce a tasty harvest.

As the squash wilts, the cucumbers droop and the home-grown tomato harvest comes to an end, my attention and my water goes to the few die-hard vegetables that can stand up to this blistering, unforgiving heat and still yield a harvest. Currently producing are okra, long beans, Southern peas, Malabar spinach, sweet potatoes, eggplant, peppers and basil. Butterbeans, mint and sorrel are hanging on, and though their quality is temporarily compromised I know they will perk up when the temperatures “cool off” (you know, into the low 90s).

In between frequent okra harvests I like to review the spring season and make notes for next year. In southwest Travis County where I live and garden, spring came early, stayed long and brought generous rains, at least by Central Texas standards. The average date of our last freeze is March 8, but this year we did not even have a freeze in February. March and April brought warm days and mild nights, perfect weather for growing a vegetable garden and a pretty good season for tomato lovers.

2017-tomato-harvest

It was a good season while it lasted but the 2017 spring tomato harvest has come to an end.

A few favorites we enjoyed this year included ‘Genuwine’, a cross between ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Costoluto Genovese’, ‘Porter’, a pretty, plum-shaped, deep pink Texas heirloom developed by Texas seedsman V. O. Porter, of Stephenville, and ‘Black Krim’ and ‘Japanese Black Trifle’, both reddish-black tomatoes with rich, bold flavor. ‘Juliet’, a productive, oblong cherry, is a perennial favorite and did great again this year, producing right up until the thermometer hit 103°.

2017-cherry-tomatoes

Left to right: ‘Sweet Olive’, ‘Dr. Carolyn’, Black Cherry’, ‘Sunrise Bumble Bee’ and ‘Helsing Junction Blue’

Besides ‘Juliet’, I grew 4 colorful cherry varieties: ‘Sweet Olive’ (red), ‘Dr. Carolyn’ (yellow), ‘Sunrise Bumble Bee’ (yellow with pink striping) and ‘Black Cherry’ (dark mahogany red).  All are good producers and add lively color and flavor to summer salads, sandwiches and wraps. I noticed a deep purple cherry tomato growing in various plots at a local community garden and had to inquire. It is called ‘Helsing Junction Blue’, named after an organic farm and CSA in Washington state. The tomato was bred by Tom Wagner, the same fellow that bred ‘Green Zebra’. It’s a pretty little tomato on large, indeterminate plants but the flavor of the ones I tasted was odd. Harvesting it at the right stage of ripeness seems to be key. Might try that one next year just out of curiosity; plus the blue tomatoes that have been introduced lately are bred to have higher levels of anthocyanins, which help decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease and may help with memory function.

Tromboncino-squash

My refrigerator was not big enough to hold the Zuchetta harvest – an Igloo cooler held the overflow.

Another recent discovery I’ve enjoyed growing the last few years is a squash called ‘Tromboncino’, also known as ‘Zuchetta Rampicante’. It is so vigorous that it seems to outgrow the squash vine borer and the result is a plethora of pale green, twisted squash. There are so many and they come so fast that I sometimes don’t have enough room for them in my refrigerator and must store them temporarily in a cooler. They were highly productive this year but just couldn’t stand up to the triple digit temps.

shishito-pepper

Leave a few ‘Shishito’ peppers to ripen on the plant then save the seed to plant next year.

‘Shishito’ peppers have been another welcome addition to the garden the last few years. The plants are fairly small but the more I pick the more peppers the plants pump out. The crisp, mild and flavorful peppers are popular in Japan and started showing up in restaurants and on food blogs in the US a few years ago. They are often blistered in a hot skillet and served as an appetizer or sliced into salads or stir-fry dishes.

Texas-Rose-Garlic

Texas Rose’ garlic, purchased from a farm in Arizona, did great this year.

Last fall I planted a variety of garlic called ‘Texas Rose’, purchased from Forever Yong Farms in Arizona. With Texas in its name I figured it had to be worth a try. Upon further investigation, I learned this garlic has been grown for many years in South Texas and was originally known as Hallettsville garlic. Forever Yong farms says they obtained the garlic from a fellow in Seguin named Ray Reininger. It’s an early artichoke type; I planted my cloves in September and harvested most of it by early May. Forever Yong Farms sold out of their garlic last fall but they should have fresh stock later this year. Check their website (http://www.foreveryongfarms.com/products.html) for availability and ordering information.

French Mother’s Cucumber Salad made with ‘Vertina’ cucumbers

French Mother’s Cucumber Salad made with ‘Vertina’ cucumbers

My favorite cucumber this year was a pickler called ‘Vertina’. The dark green, crunchy fruit was very productive, great for pickling and eating fresh. My friend Carolyn shared a favorite recipe that came from her niece who spent a semester living with a family in France. The family ate daily from their garden and the French mother made a cucumber-tomato salad that Carolyn and her sister still enjoying making every summer. It’s quick and delicious and can be made “to taste”. They call it French Mother’s Cucumber Salad:

1 large or 2 small cucumbers, peeled and sliced

Equal amount of cherry tomatoes

Mozzarella balls

Basil to taste

 

Mix together 1 part balsamic vinegar to 2 parts olive oil, salt & pepper then add

to cucumber mixture. Chill slightly before serving.

 

As you can see from the photo I don’t peel my cucumbers and I added purple onion. But that’s the beauty of this salad – you can’t go wrong plus it’s easy and yummy. Thanks, Carolyn!

 

 

I share my posts on The Simple Homestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by and check out all the amazing things these gardeners and homesteaders are doing!

Saving Lettuce Seed by Patty G. Leander

Lettuce-seeds

A feathery tuft of lettuce seed.

Gardeners love to save stuff. We save vegetable scraps for the compost, dried leaves for mulching, buckets for toting, rocks for edging, small containers for seed-starting and rainwater for irrigation. And we save seed.

Seed saving is a natural extension of vegetable gardening. It allows you to replenish your seed supply and share seed with other gardeners. In addition, seeds saved year after year from plants grown in a particular region or microclimate gradually acclimate to that location; each time you plant your saved seed the plants that develop produce seeds that are better adapted to your soil, climate and cultural conditions. Win-win!

Crawford-Lettuce

’Crawford’ lettuce is a tasty romaine type with a striking appearance.

Several years ago, a gardener friend gave me a few seeds of ‘Crawford’ lettuce, a reseeding romaine variety that has been grown and shared in the San Antonio area since the 1980s. I love vegetable seed that has a person’s name attached to it because it also comes with a mix of horticultural knowledge, persistence, pride, faith and history. You don’t get to attach your name to a plant or a seed until you have a worthy specimen that has proved its merits again and again. And if you can trace it back far enough you can even discover a little bit about where it originated. ‘Crawford’ lettuce got its name from Marshall Crawford, a Life Member of the San Antonio Men’s Garden Club. Marshall got the seed from his father-in-law, John Wesley Van Houtan, a long-time gardener in Tulsa, OK. John was born in 1900 and his daughter, Irene (Marshall’s wife), remembers her dad always planting this lettuce in their backyard garden, saving seed from the best plants year after year. And today, thanks to Irene and Marshall Crawford, we can grow that same seed, enjoy the same lettuce and appreciate its history. And we can save the seed and pass it on.

Bolted-Lettuce

As the days grow longer and warmer lettuce sends up a flower stalk.

Lettuce seed is easy to save because it is a self-pollinating annual, meaning the flowers that are produced at the end of the season have both male and female parts and pollinate themselves – no need to worry about isolating plants to prevent cross-pollination by wind or insects. However, seed-saving guidelines do recommend a distance of 10-12 feet between different varieties of lettuce to avoid chance crosses and maintain the true genetic traits of each distinct variety.

Bolted-Lettuce-2

Yellow flowers give way to fluffy tufts of seeds.

Lettuce is a cool-season vegetable and as mild days of spring give way to summer heat, plants signal the end of their life cycle by sending up a flower stalk. The leaves become progressively smaller as they spiral up the stalk, and soon the top of the plant explodes in tiny, yellow flowers that give way to feathery tufts of seed. Like dandelions, these billowy tufts allow the seed to disperse by floating through the air. To collect the seeds before they all fly away, cut or tap the seed heads into a bag or other container and allow them to dry for a couple of weeks. Then shake the seed heads and/or rub them between your hands to loosen all the seeds (there will be many seeds!). To separate the seed from the chaff, press it through a screen or colander a few times. You can also use the wind or a small fan to blow the dried chaff into the air. Be careful because it doesn’t take much to blow the seed into the air as well. Once the seed is clean store it in a glass jar or paper envelope with a label and the date.

dried-lettuce-heads

Cut the feathery seed heads from the plant and place them in a bucket, bag or bin to dry.

My lettuce plants held on longer than normal this summer so I have been collecting seed for various projects and for fall planting. If you would like to try ‘Crawford’ lettuce in your own garden seed can be purchased from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (www.southernexposure.com).

saving-lettuce-seeds

Shake or rub the seed heads with your hands; a screen or fan will help separate the chaff from the seed.

Saving seed from your own vegetable plants has many advantages: it is a frugal way to increase your seed stock, it contributes to the diversity of our seed supply and each generation of collected seed will be more acclimated to your unique growing environment. Plus observing and participating in the rhythm of nature is enlightening and downright satisfying!

Crawford-Lettuce-2

’Crawford’ has its own bed in the Children’s Vegetable Garden at the San Antonio Botanical Garden.

 

I share my posts on The Simple Homestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by and check out all the amazing things these gardeners and homesteaders are doing!

Crop Rotation for Healthy Plants by Patty G. Leander

You probably know where you planted squash in your garden last year but what about the year before or even three years ago? Did you also plant cucumbers or melons? This is important information to keep track of so you can maintain a rotation schedule for the vegetables you grow in your garden.

Planting the same vegetables, or even related vegetables, in the same spot year after year can encourage a damaging build-up of pests and disease; crop rotation helps disrupt recurring cycles of infection by moving host vegetables to a different area of the garden, thereby thwarting the efforts of diseases or pests that may be left in the soil from a previous crop.

For example, squash, cucumbers, pumpkins and melons, all members of the cucurbit family, are susceptible to various diseases that overwinter in crop residue from diseased plants, but moving them out of their previous growing area means they won’t be available to support those diseases.

Below are nine plant families that are primarily grown in vegetable gardens, along with the different vegetables that belong to each family. For simplicity’s sake I’ve used a common vegetable name for each family, followed by its botanical name:

Cabbage Family (Brassicaceae)

 

Arugula, Asian greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collards, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, rutabaga, radishes, turnips

Arugula, Asian greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collards, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, rutabaga, radishes, turnips

Beet Family (Chenopodiaceae/Amaranthaceae)

 

Beets, spinach, Swiss chard

Beets, spinach, Swiss chard

Legume Family (Fabaceae)

 

Butterbeans, green beans, peanuts, cowpeas, soybeans, fava beans, garden peas

Butterbeans, green beans, peanuts, cowpeas, soybeans, fava beans, garden peas

 

Mallow Family (Malvaceae)

 

Okra (note the broccoli plants in the adjacent row, sheltered from hot afternoon sun by the late summer okra)

Okra (note the broccoli plants in the adjacent row, sheltered from hot afternoon sun by the late summer okra)

Nightshade Family (Solanaceae)

 

Eggplant, peppers, potatoes, tomatillos, tomatoes

Eggplant, peppers, potatoes, tomatillos, tomatoes

Onion Family (Alliacaeae)

 

Chives, garlic, leeks, onions, shallots

Chives, garlic, leeks, onions, shallots

Carrot Family (Apiaceae)

 

Carrots, celery, cilantro, dill, fennel, parsley, parsnips (Look at those impeccably groomed beds – my friend Paul is an engineer, and a master at creating and maintaining perfectly coiffed and rotated beds)

Carrots, celery, cilantro, dill, fennel, parsley, parsnips (Look at those impeccably groomed beds – my friend Paul is an engineer, and a master at creating and maintaining perfectly coiffed and rotated beds)

Squash Family (Curcurbitaceae)

 

Cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, squash

Cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, squash

Lettuce Family (Asteraceae)

 

Artichoke, endive, lettuce

Artichoke, endive, lettuce

Since vegetables in the same families are generally susceptible to similar pest and disease issues gardeners are encouraged to rotate crops by family, thereby thwarting the efforts of diseases or pests that may be left in the soil from a previous crop. This may not prevent re-infection completely, but it does slow down the spread of soilborne diseases and pests so that plants rotated to other areas have a chance at a vigorous start.

How you choose to practice crop rotation will depend on the size of your garden, the number of different vegetables you grow and how much effort you want to invest. The idea here is to rotate crop families to different areas, rows or beds in a vegetable garden over a 3 year period. For example, my garden consists of 5 wide rows numbered 1-5. Each year I maintain records of my plantings and a simple diagram of my garden. This year tomatoes, eggplant and/or peppers will occupy Row 2, next year they will move to Row 3, then to Row 4 and eventually back to Row 1.  I also have four raised beds as well as large pots and straw bale gardens that I sometimes utilize in the rotation – these allow me to expand my plantings or even rotate a crop family out of my garden completely if I notice a persistent pest or disease.

 

Sweet potatoes (left) and a fallow bed covered with alfalfa mulch

Sweet potatoes (left) and a fallow bed covered with alfalfa mulch

Additionally, I may incorporate a row of sweet potatoes (morning glory family) or corn (grass family) into the rotation since these represent two completely different families, or I may leave a bed fallow and cover it with a layer of mulch – all of these efforts to remove and relocate a host vegetable means there is less opportunity for a pest or disease to reproduce and spread once it emerges from the soil.

 

Morning glories and moonflowers, both related to sweet potatoes, are striking rotations for vertical structures. This is my favorite morning glory: ‘Scarlett O’Hara’.

Morning glories and moonflowers, both related to sweet potatoes, are striking rotations for vertical
structures. This is my favorite morning glory: ‘Scarlett O’Hara’.

If you have a permanent trellis or vertical structure in your garden think about rotating vining or climbing plants, such as cucumbers, pole bean or even tomatoes in the warm season and vining sugar snap peas or sweet peas in the cool season. I also like to incorporate climbing flowers, such as moonflowers and morning glories, as part of my vertical rotation.

 

I share my posts on The Simple Homestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by and check out all the amazing things these gardeners and homesteaders are doing!

Late January in the Texas Garden

Have you ever stopped to buy plants on the way to a funeral?  Well, I can now say that I have.  A couple of days ago we were in Waco for a funeral.  On the way to the burial we passed Brazos Feed and I could see that they had a new shipment of transplants out front.  Now I am not sure of the protocol for such an opportunity so I asked my wife if it would be disrespectful to swing in and pick up a few things that my Brenham sources did not yet have.  She told me stopping would not be disrespectful but being late would.  So, with her blessing (and a strict admonishment to make it quick) I pulled in and grabbed 18 broccoli plants, 6 cabbage, 6 cauliflower and a bunch of Yellow Granex (Vidalia) onion sets.

If you can find brassica transplants there is still time to plant them and get a crop done in time to replant the row in beans or Southern peas.

If you can find brassica transplants there is still time to plant them and get a crop done in time to replant the row in beans or Southern peas.

January is a busy time for those of us in Zones 7 through 9.  Right now is the perfect time to replant all of the brassicas you love (Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, collard greens and mustards).  If you put out your brassica transplants now they will be ready for harvest just in time for you to plant your beans and Southern Peas in late March or early April.  Plant your transplants about a foot a part and make sure they receive nice, even moisture.  Dry soil will stunt their development.  Since brassicas are almost all “greens” they love nitrogen.  Feed monthly with the highest nitrogen organic you can find.  I like Sweet Green (11% N) but have been unable to find it.  I am using MicroLife Ultimate (8-4-6).  Not as high in nitrogen as I like but it is a very good balanced product.

MicroLife-Ultimate

MicroLife Ultimate is a very nice pelleted organic fertilizer that is high in nitrogen (8-4-6)

January is also about as late as I like to wait before planting my onion sets.  I usually plant my onions in November or December but I forgot to order them from Dixondale this year.  Because of this, I had to wait until now for the feed stores to get in their sets.  It is not too late to grow big, sweet onions though.  Just make sure to keep the rows weed free and side dress with an organic fertilizer once a month.  Onions have a very small root mass so they need lots of fertilizer and regular water.

Yellow-Granex-Onion-Sets

If you haven’t planted your onions do it now! The longer you wait to plant the smaller your harvested bulbs will be.

Asparagus is my favorite thing to eat from my garden.  If you have never planted any now is the time (check out my article on planting here).  If you already have an established asparagus bed side dress it now with a high nitrogen fertilizer to ensure lots of shoots in the spring.  I love having fresh asparagus for Easter dinner and since Easter is late this year we should have plenty.

Now is also a great time to plant potatoes. My favorites are Red LaSoda and Kennebec. However, there are over 800 varieties of potatoes so they are great plants to experiment with.

Now is also a great time to plant potatoes. My favorites are Red LaSoda and Kennebec. However, there are over 800 varieties of potatoes so they are great plants to experiment with.

And don’t forget the potatoes!  January is a great time to plant them in our part of Texas.  Right now I have my red LaSodas and my Kennebecs cut up and curing on the dining room table.  Some people like to dust their cut seed potatoes with sulfur to prevent rot.  I don’t do this and I have not had a problem.  However, it is a good idea if your soil does not drain well.  Potatoes are the only thing that don’t need a lot of nitrogen right now.  High nitrogen encourage the potatoes to grow stems and leaves.  Dig a deep furrow (a foot or so) place your potato pieces in the bottom of the row and then back fill with compost.  If you plant deep enough you will not need to “hill” the plants as they grow and the compost will provide enough nutrients to ensure a great harvest.

We are getting some spectacular sunsets right now. My wife Sally captured this one the other evening.

We are getting some spectacular sunsets right now. My wife Sally captured this one the other evening.

I share my posts on The Simple Homestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by and check out all the amazing things these gardeners and homesteaders are doing!

Grow Tomatoes in Egg Shells – Part 1

If your tomato tastes yearn for something different than the standard hybrids or heirlooms that are available at the nurseries and box stores in March, then you need to grow your own plants.  Growing your own tomatoes from seed is fun, pretty easy and the only way to ensure that you have the varieties you love when planting time comes.  For those of us in Zones 8 and 9 planting time is generally thought of as March 15.  Since it takes about three months to turn a tiny little tomato seed into a healthy transplant the time to plant those seeds is now.

This year I am growing tomato transplants in egg shells. The tomatoes I am trying this year are "Old German", "Black Vernissage", "Black", "Barry's Crazy Cherry" and a pass-a-long tomato we call "Brenda's Delight".

This year I am growing tomato transplants in egg shells. The tomatoes I am trying this year are “Old German”, “Black Vernissage”, “Black”, “Barry’s Crazy Cherry” and a pass-a-long tomato we call “Brenda’s Delight”.

This year, I am going to try something new.  My friend and plant mentor Cynthia Mueller of College Station told me that country people used to start their tomato plants in egg shells.  According to Cynthia, these frugal, and practical, old timers would poke a drainage hole in the bottom of an opened egg shell, fill it with a little potting media and seeds and then place them in a sunny window.  Once the plants were ready to up pot they would gently crush the shell and plant both the shell and the seedling in a bigger pot.  I love the simplicity and frugality of this tip so much that I have decided to try it and compare “egg shell transplants” to the ones I grow in my high tech grow center.

Adorable-chicken-coop

If you are going to do a tomato growing experiment that requires egg shells it is a good thing to have your own chickens!

For this test we are going to grow “Old German” tomatoes that I purchased from the Territorial Seed Company.    Since I live in an area that is full of people of German descent I thought this would be the perfect tomato to use in my egg shell experiment.  Old German is a large (fruits over a pound) open pollenated, non-determinate tomato plant that produces sweet “orange-y” tomatoes.

After the egg shells are cleaned, fill with a high quality potting medium

After the egg shells are cleaned, fill with a high quality potting medium

To prepare our egg shells my wife went out to the coop and picked up a dozen eggs.  She used a serrated knife to take the tops off of the eggs and an ice pick to make the drainage holes.  After that she washed them very gently with warm soapy water.  Once the shells were clean she used a kitchen spoon to fill the egg shells with a commercial potting media.  Finally, she watered the media thoroughly and added the seeds.

Sally and I used tweezers to place three tomato seeds in each egg shell.

Sally and I used tweezers to place three tomato seeds in each egg shell.

Through the years I have seen gardeners that have grown great transplants with very simple set ups and others that produce their plants with incredibly elaborate systems.   While this experiment is just for fun, it is a great illustration of just how easy it is to grow your own tomatoes from seed. If you have never tried growing tomato transplants I highly recommend that you order some seeds and give it a try.  It is a fun and inexpensive way to explore the incredible amount of variety that exists the tomato genus.

BTW, now is also the perfect time to plant peppers, eggplants and tomatillos.  Be sure to check back in March and see how my “egg shell” experiment works out.

 

I share these posts on Our SimpleHomestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by.  The “hop” has tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!

Okra and Butterbeans – Harvest Now, Enjoy Later by Patty G. Leander

okra-butterbean-heart

Butterbean and okra love

Okra and butterbeans are like peanut butter and chocolate – two great tastes that taste great together…and apart! You may be harvesting them now as the warm weather wanes or perhaps you will consider a space for them in your garden next year. Each vegetable stands on its own delicious qualities, but aside from taste there are several reasons that okra and butterbeans are two of my favorite vegetable crops.

butterbeans-1

Butterbeans love the heat and are relatively pest free.

For starters, they are two of the easiest vegetables to grow in Texas and the South. They like heat, they like sun, they are not prone to disease and unless you have nematode-infested soil they are not bothered by many insect pests.  And unless you grow your own butter beans you’ll be hard pressed to find them fresh, even at the farmer’s market (at least where I live).

canned-okra

Okra does so well in the Texas heat and it is easy to preserve in a variety of ways

They are prolific producers, providing plenty of pods for eating fresh in season as well as preserving for later enjoyment. When I am blessed with a bountiful harvest of both butter beans and okra I like to cook them up in a tasty soup or stew, freeze in smaller portions and then pull it out on a cold night. That home-grown taste of summer warms me up in the middle of winter and reminds me why I love vegetable gardening.

Okra and butterbeans are easy to grow and they taste great when combined together into a hearty soup or stew.

Okra and butterbeans are easy to grow and they taste great when combined together into a hearty soup or stew.

Because they are self-pollinated, okra and butter beans are super easy for beginning seed savers. Be sure you are growing open pollinated varieties (as opposed to hybrid varieties) and allow some of the okra and bean pods to mature and dry before harvesting. For okra I usually tag 2 or 3 pods per plant that I am going to allow to mature for seed and then I can harvest all the rest for fresh eating or preserving. Once the okra pods have dried twist or crack open and remove the seeds.

If you want to keep seeds of okra be sure and plant only a single variety.

If you want to keep seeds of okra be sure and plant only a single variety.

One okra pod has lots of seeds so save according to your needs. Try to pick the healthiest looking pods from the healthiest plants and avoid pods that are diseased or deformed. For butter beans set aside enough dried seed for planting in your garden the next year plus a few more for giving away if you are so inclined. If you are serious about maintaining the purity of a particular variety like I am with ‘Stewart’s Zeebest’ okra, (http://masterofhort.com/2015/05/stewarts-zeebest-okra-by-patty-g-leander/) only plant that single variety to avoid any accidental cross-pollination.

Here is one of my favorite recipes for using okra and butter beans at the end of the season. It is a very forgiving recipe so feel free to tweak it, substitute sauage for ham, leave the meat out completely, add more vegetables or whatever makes it work for you. I usually double the recipe, freeze in single serving or dinner-sized batches and pull out to enjoy in the cold of winter.

okra-butterbean-stew

Okra Stew

If you don’t have fresh butter beans you can usually find them in the frozen food section, most likely labeled as limas beans or baby limas.

 

1 onion, chopped

1 cup chopped ham

1 lb fresh, sliced okra

2 cups fresh butter beans

1-2 tablespoons oil

2 cups chopped cooked chicken

16 oz can puréed tomatoes

1-2cups fresh or frozen corn

2 cups chicken broth

½ tsp each salt, pepper, thyme

2-3 cups spinach or other available greens, chopped (optional)

 

Heat oil in a large pot and sauté onion, ham, okra and butter beans for 6-8 minutes. Stir in remaining ingredients and simmer 30-45 minutes. Serve over rice or cooked grains, if desired.  Yield: 2 qts

 

Very Hungry Caterpillars by Patty G. Leander

cabbage-worm-damage

Caterpillars bring insatiable appetites to the vegetable garden.

Along with colorful butterflies, smaller and more ordinary looking moths flit around the vegetable garden this time of year, laying eggs that hatch into caterpillars whose sole purpose is to eat and excrete. If you are growing brassicas your plants have probably already been under attack by these very hungry caterpillars.

Cross-striped-caterpillar-cabbage-looper

Cross-striped caterpillar (left) and cabbage looper (right).

The main culprits here in Texas are the cabbage looper (mottled brown moth with a small white marking on each wing), cross-striped caterpillar (brownish-gray moth with darker brown spots) and cabbageworm (whitish-yellow moth with a single black dot on each wing).

cross-striped-cabbageworm-eggs

What looks like a small yellow blob (less than 1/8 inch across) on the back of a broccoli leaf is actually a mass of cross-striped caterpillar eggs waiting to hatch.

These creatures are stealth; I seldom notice the moths that lay the eggs (they are more active at night) and the freshly hatched caterpillars are so miniscule and blend so well into the foliage that they can do severe damage before they are detected. Inspect your plants often, especially on the underside of leaves; if you miss them you may be surprised to find your plants decimated the next morning.

cabbage-worm

As the caterpillar grows so does its appetite.

Though these tiny munchers are good at camouflage there is one sure way to affirm their presence before too much damage is done: miniature dark green balls of excrement. Yep, what goes in must come out and caterpillars are prolific poopers.

caterpillar-poop

Dark green droppings mean caterpillars are feasting nearby.

And the bigger they get the more they eat and the more they eat the more they poop. I have had more than one novice gardener tell me that they thought those little green balls were eggs, but if you look above or near the excrement you will almost assuredly find a caterpillar or two or three chewing away.

If you only have a few plants a good defense is to hand pick and destroy caterpillars or infested leaves every time you inspect your plants, but if you have many plants an insecticide will be more effective and a more efficient use of your time. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt for short) is the recommended control for caterpillars, especially in the earliest stages of growth. It is an organic insecticide made from a naturally occurring bacteria found in soil; when caterpillars ingest the Bt-coated leaves it destroys their gut, causing them to stop feeding and die within a couple of days.

cabbage-worms-bt

Note the tiny egg mass inside the black circle (left); so tiny yet so destructive (right).

 

Bt is only effective against caterpillars; it will not harm humans, cats, dogs or beneficial insects but it will kill any caterpillars that ingest it, including butterfly larvae, so apply it only to edibles that are being damaged. Be sure to follow label instructions for application rate and frequency as follow-up applications may be necessary for control. Bt is sold under different trade names, including Dipel and Thuricide, and can be applied as a spray or a dust. Liquid Bt seems to roll off some of the thick, waxy leaves of cabbage, kale and collards, so I have found it beneficial to apply Bt as a dust.

Dustin-Mizer

The Dustin Mizer is a good tool for applying Bt as a dust.

Several years ago my brother gave me a tool called the Dustin Mizer that I use quite often for this purpose. When cranked it emits a fine dusting of powder over and under the plant.  It is especially important to direct Bt to the underside of the leaves as that is where the caterpillars are usually feeding.

It’s always a good idea to vary insect control methods in the vegetable garden so consider alternating Bt with a product containing the active ingredient spinosad (also derived from a soil bacterium and also organic). One other option is to use lightweight floating row cover to protect cabbage crops; cover plants as soon as they go in the ground so the moth never has access to the plants to lay her eggs.

 

I share these posts on Our SimpleHomestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by.  The “hop” has tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!

Late Season Legumes and a Pomegranate Tip by Patty Leander

kwintus-trellis

Kwintus’ pole beans

The transition to cool season vegetables is well underway and my garden has gone from an embarrassing end-of-summer jumble to a reenergized and productive backyard vegetable patch. It seemed like it would never come but that hint of cool weather finally arrived and nighttime temperatures have begun their gradual decline. Even though the thermometer may still hit the 90° mark it takes most of the day to get there and it doesn’t stay there for long. That spells R-E-L-I-E-F for plants.

savoy-cabbage-growing

Alcosa’ savoy cabbage and ‘Green Fingers’ cucumber

Thanks to some timely rains, cooling shade cover and a protective layer of mulch, the beans, squash and cucumbers I planted in late August are now producing and the broccoli, cauliflower, collards, cabbage and mustard are growing strong.

cow-peas-leaf-footed-bugs

The Southern peas yielded several yummy meals before being invaded by leaf-footed bugs.

Southern peas that were planted in April – black-eyed peas, crowder peas and purple hulls – produced like champs all summer long but by October those *#!@ leaf-footed bugs were multiplying like crazy so I decided at this point in the season it was better to remove the plants than try to battle the stinkbugs. I harvested what I could; plenty of fresh pods for shelling and immediate enjoyment and even more dry pods that will be shelled and set aside for winter meals (including New Year’s Day).  Freezing fresh cowpeas couldn’t be any simpler: spread the shelled peas in a single layer on a baking sheet and freeze till solid, then pour them into a plastic freezer bag, no blanching required.

worchester-red-beans

Worchester Indian Red’ limas grow into vigorous, productive vines.

Butter beans are coming at me high and low – seems like I can harvest just as many on my hands and knees as I can on a ladder. They have produced off and on all summer and put on a new flush of growth and blooms in response to August rains that were accompanied by an ever-so-slight drop in temperature. I am growing three excellent pole varieties, ‘Sieva’, ‘Violet’s Multicolor Butterbean’ and ‘Worchester Indian Red’.  Their vigorous vines will climb whatever they come in contact with; the Worchesters have engulfed a 10 foot sunflower growing next to the trellis and the Sievas have found their way up into the pomegranate tree. Is this what they mean by companion planting?!

dried-butter-bean-pods

Dried pods ready for shelling – if they don’t shatter first.

If the dried pods are left too long on the vine they will sometimes split open and the seeds will fall to the ground, sprouting up wherever they land. I harvest dried pods every couple of days and keep them in a bowl on my kitchen counter; every once in awhile, without warning, a random pod shatters and the dried beans fly out of the bowl with an explosive POP, landing on the floor or flying into the sink. Makes me jump every time. When I have a full bowl I take them to my mom so she can shell them.

kwintus-flat-beans

Kwintus flat beans are large and perfect for roasting!

I planted ‘Kwintus’ pole beans in late August and harvested my first pods about 50 days later. They are an early, flat, Romano-type bean, delicious and productive. They are also known as ‘Early Riser’ and their fast growth makes them great for the fall or spring season. If you’d like to give them a try next year order seeds online from Kitazawa Seeds (www.kitazawseed.com) or Turtle Tree Seeds (www.turtletreeseed.org). And be sure to try them in the following lip-smacking recipe.

Roasted Flat Beans

These roasted beans melt in your mouth. I came across this recipe in a Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) publication a few years ago. The ingredients and the technique intrigued me and I had a bounty of beans at the time so I tried it and have been enjoying these beans ever since. The recipe was originally shared by Sheila and Matt Neal of Neal’s Deli in Carrboro, North Carolina. They recommend it as an economical side dish to feed a crowd and they say it tastes even better if made a day ahead. I can attest to that!

2 ½ lbs flat beans, rinsed and stemmed

½ cup peeled and thinly sliced garlic

2 cups diced yellow onion

2 medium-sized tomatoes, grated*

1 tsp sugar

½ tsp black pepper, coarsely ground

¼ tsp red pepper flakes

1 tbsp kosher salt

3 bay leaves

1 cup water

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

Heat oven to 350°. Gently and thoroughly combine the above ingredients in a roasting pan. Place parchment paper directly onto the beans. Cover with a tight-fitting lid or foil. Cook until the beans are tender, stirring well every 15 minutes for about an hour and 15 minutes.

*Grating tomatoes is an easy way to “peel” them. Cut the tomato in half and remove seeds with your fingers. Place the cut side down on the coarse holes of a box grater. Run the tomato back and forth until all the flesh is grated. Discard the skin.

A POMEGRANATE TIP

removing-pomegranate-seeds

Hold a pomegranate half, seed side down, over a bowl and whack it several times to remove seeds

Pomegranate season is upon us and if you’ve been to the grocery store lately you’ve undoubtedly noticed pomegranates prominently displayed in the produce section. Or perhaps you are lucky enough to have your own tree. But the mysterious and exotic nature of the pomegranate can be a bit confounding when it’s time to liberate those seeds. I use to cut a pomegranate in half or quarters and turn them inside out into a bowl of water to release the seeds but ever since I saw this tip on the internet I’ve been paddling my pomegranates – it’s so easy!

The following video shows a street vendor in Bangkok who has an even better way; he removes the top and then scores the outside of the pomegranate along the white membranes. When he pulls it apart the membrane is loose and comes right out, then he proceeds – with lightening speed – to whack the seeds out of each section (jump ahead to 1:20 to go straight to his demo):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUsfw-KppCU

Those juicy little seeds (actually called arils) are a perfect pop of color and flavor to brighten leafy salads, rice or grain pilafs, oatmeal, yogurt, orange or grapefruit segments, cocktails or even sprinkled atop your favorite guacamole. I eat the entire seed. Do you?

 

I share these posts on Our SimpleHomestead Blog Hop.  Be sure to stop by.  The “hop” has tons of great information from gardeners and homesteaders all over the world!