Sunday, September 29, 2013

The End of September

The last Boule D'Or melon of the year.
The black scabiosa that is slowly naturalizing in my yard has set copious seed; next year, hopefully, there will be even more of these moody beauties.

The Wickson tree bears flavor bombs and right now, they're beginning to get good.

The bedraggled, summer-worn Hot Cocoa rose lives up to its name when backlit by the southern sun.

The Indian Mallow blooms even when everything else is tired.

The skin shed by an alligator lizard.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Deep Purple

For four years, I've worked to stabilize genetics for plants that produce deep purple tomatillos from an original source of Baker Creek's Purple Tomatillo seeds, which at first grow-out produced mixed green, lavender, and occasionally purple tomatillos. This year, after years of roguing out plants that didn't match my ideal, I had no outliers; each produced inky-purple, very sweet tomatillos, and loads of them. Supported by tomato cages, the plants grow taller than I am, and they are covered with golf-ball sized fruits. As well, unlike their tomato relatives, they appear unfazed by the root-knot nematodes that have invaded my garden beds. When I pulled them up to clean out their bed for fall this week, I discovered their roots were smooth and nematode-free.

Since I've been working to pin down these genes, I've had to grow out more tomatillos than I would likely do so otherwise. Consequently, at the end of each summer, I am rich in sweet, deep purple marble-fruit. In the past couple years, I've been making big batches of salsa morada that I freeze to use for dinners during the winter. When I'm busy, I defrost a quart and make rolled cheese enchiladas in salsa morada. When I'm really busy, the enchiladas are stacked rather than rolled.

Quite unlike the large grocery-store green tomatillos, the fruit of this variety is near black on the exterior with purple flesh among the very ripe and mottled purple flesh among the near-ripe. It is much sweeter than the standard green tomatillo.

This year, I saved seed from my largest-fruited plant to grow out next year in an attempt to gradually increase fruit size, but if I lose flavor, color, or quality in this venture to produce larger fruit, I'll ease off on that goal. What I've got is already quite special.

A friendly acquaintance recommended I name this tomatillo "Wenger Ink." Any other suggestions?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Ugly Bumps

I grow a lot of food here, as you know, and I have no problem showing off my bounty, yet if that is all I do, I am lying. Failures and struggles happen here at the ranchito, too. This summer, I've begun a battle against a bitch of a soil pest: the root-knot nematode. Luckily, most of my favorite fruit trees are on Nemaguard rootstock, which helps them withstand both the bugs and the droughty nature of our climate. The tomatoes, though, they suffer. I planted ten plants this year and harvested approximately the same number of pounds. Harrumph.

Though I knew nematodes were my problem, I didn't know what to do about them. I had tried this spring to use beneficial nematodes to help counter the root-knot nematodes, but that turned out to be an expensive yet value-less investment. I went then to wise members of my local produce exchange—a font of local gardening knowledge—and the Internet for solutions, and I've learned, as is often the case with a difficult problem, there is no silver bullet. Instead, I'll have to incorporate additional strategies into the crop rotation, compost and manure amendment, and liquid seaweed fertilizer that are already my practice.

How I know I have root-knot nematodes:
  • Ugly bumps. Last year, when I pulled out my tomatoes and a few other plants, I could see the heavily galled, deeply scarred roots. These weren't smooth main roots with lots of healthy, happy feeder roots, but instead a medusa-head of succulent-jointed ropes. I hung my hopes too heavily on what I thought a winter free of food would do to the root-knot communities. They, persistent suckers as they are, made it through the winter quite happily to hit this year's crop even harder.

  • Weak plants. My tomatoes, squash, and melons really struggled this summer. They'd wilt after only a single day without water, when usually they'd need water only twice a week. If I looked at them wrong, they'd get sick. Most of the flowers on my tomatoes just fell off rather than setting fruit, and the majority of my squash and melons aborted fertilized fruit because they just didn't have the means to support the fruit to maturity. Beans, sweet potatoes, tomatillos, and peppers seem to be able to tolerate the nematodes better than tomatoes and cucurbits.

What I am doing as I clean out the beds now and into the future:
  • Amend with more horse manure than ever. This will provide as rich as possible a medium to support struggling plants. As well, it will add more organic material to help ensure water retention, a deep challenge in our soil.
  • Seed a winter cover crop of rye and mustard. I'll do this in half of my beds, those that will host next year's tomatoes and melons, come mid autumn. Root-knot nematodes are unlikely to feed on rye roots (apparently rye doesn't appeal to those buggers), so the plants will grow heartily over the winter, pulling up nutrients with their extensive root systems. While the nematodes may nibble on the mustard roots, the mustard will have its vengeance in the spring when I cut both the rye and mustard down and dig the plants into the soil. The mustard will gas the nematodes, and the rye will decompose quickly and feed the surface soil with the nutrients it pulled up from the deep.
  • Add dried molasses to the soil. With every plant I plant, this fall, this winter, and next spring I'll be adding dried molasses. The molasses helps feed the microbes that both attack the nematodes and work symbiotically with the plants' root systems. This may be something I need to do forever.
  • Plant French marigolds. Tagetes patula, when attacked by nematodes, interrupts their reproduction. I plant to start loads of French marigolds in the early spring so I can plant them thickly among my tomatoes and melons next year.

What I could but won't do:
  • Solarize with black plastic. Yes, this would kill my mean root-knot nematodes, but it would also kill my lovely worms, happy microbes, red spiders, and other good guys.
  • Mulch heavily in the vegetable garden. I'm a huge proponent of mulch in most places, but in my vegetable garden, I've found it makes it impossible to direct seed beans or squash or okra, or any of those other delicious vegetables that grow best when they stay where they started. Mulch provides a home for hoards of sowbugs that take out seedlings overnight. (And, don't join the chorus that sings "Sowbugs only eat decomposing matter"; I've watched them munch down a bean seedling. Sowbugs and seedlings do not mix. That chorus sings the wrong tune.)

Monday, September 02, 2013

Smoky Eggplant and Summer Squash

Lady Emma Hamilton: A David Austen rose that handles the late summer heat in my yard. Not many roses do so well this time of year.

When much of the rest of the northern hemisphere starts to experience fall, here, we hit the peak of our heat. It is the time of year when all cooking should happen outside. We've been grilling all of our meats, and I've been grilling the veggies too, loads of grilled zucchini, onions, whole okra pods, and loose knots of Asian long beans. For a party though, I wanted something a little more elegant than just slapping veg on the hot grill, and the eggplants I had were so beautiful. So, this dish happened.

Smoky Eggplant and Summer Squash
I found the inspiration for my version of this recipe here when I was searching for a recipe that included grilled eggplant and tahini. I am really happy with how this turned out: a rich combination of smoke, nuttiness, tangy-ness, and a hit of hot earth from the cumin. Substantial enough to be a main dish, this could also serve as a side, accompanying perhaps grilled marinated chicken and a zingy salad. Or, this could be a great tapas with lots of other savory nibbles for a warm-weather cocktail party.

You will need:
3 large eggplants (Italian and Japanese varieties both work)
3 summer squash (any variety: pattypan, zucchini, crookneck, etc)
Olive oil
Salt, pepper, and ground cumin to taste
Lemon or lime juice to taste
2 Tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1/2 cup tahini
1/2 cup labne (or, if you can't find labne, use Greek yogurt; it will be looser, but still yummy)
2 cloves garlic
a handful of chopped cilantro or mint or both

To make the dish:
Light your grill, let it heat up, and place your eggplant on it. Turn the eggplants occasionally, until they are mostly blackened. Once they are charred, remove them from the grill and place them in a covered bowl until they are cool enough to handle. Covering the bowl creates a humid environment, which helps the eggplants release the skin more easily later.

While your eggplant is cooling, cut the summer squash into large pieces. If you're using zucchini, cut each into two or three pieces lengthwise. If you're using pattypans, cut them across their bellies. Smear the summer squash with olive oil and place them on the grill, cooking until they're just tender and have pronounced charmarks. Remove them from the heat and arrange the pieces in the bottom of a large serving dish.

After the eggplants have cooled enough to handle, remove their blackened skins, and cut them into large chunks. Place the chunks on the serving dish around the pieces of squash, distributing the vegetables evenly across the platter.

Sprinkle salt, ground pepper, ground cumin, and lemon or lime juice over the contents of the plate. Drizzle the pomegranate molasses all over the plate's contents as well. Make sure your tahini is well-mixed, then drizzle the tahini over all.

With the side of a large knife on a cutting board, smash the garlic cloves, then mince the smashed cloves. Scrape them in a small bowl and stir in the labne. Add a teaspoon or so of olive oil, then stir together the combination so the labne gets silky-rich with the olive oil and natural garlic juices. With a spoon, plop dollops of the labne mixture over the squash and eggplant on the serving platter. Finally, sprinkle the chopped herbs over the rest of the ingredients and serve.

This serves four as a main dish and many as a side.