Tuesday, July 30, 2013


Three nights in a row, I've gone outside in the evening to put things away and clean up in the shed. The last two nights, in order to get to the door, I used a stick to tear down the web this spider has tried to build. But three nights of starving out this baby is too much. Tonight, she builds. My organizing can wait.

Happy hunting, girl.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

It's a Miracle

Many years ago the Tongva community lived in Southern California, including the place that is now called Montebello. When the Spanish came, the Tongva peoples and their language were nearly decimated. There are no more Tongva speakers left; the last died sometime in the middle of the 20th Century. But, before this last Tongva speaker died, someone discovered oil in Montebello, then someone discovered agriculture in Montebello, and then the Japanese were sent away, and sometime in there, Frederick H. Howard, born in 1874—according to this article—settled in Montebello.

I don't know where Frederick H. Howard was born. I don't know his family history or what happened to his descendants if he had any. What I do know is that there is an avenue named Howard now in Montebello, cutting north from Beverly Blvd across Lincoln, eventually dead-ending into a road named Jefferson, up near hills still dotted with bobbing bird-head oil wells. I do know, according to patents that are floating around, that he hybridized a variety of ornamental and food plants.

I also know that he developed and patented a plum that bears his name. According to David Karp's article, when Mr. Howard patented his plum tree, he claimed it was a cross between a European greengage and an Asian satsuma, a genetically improbably cross. Also according to Karp, Howard was likely incorrect, and mistook a Japanese green-fleshed plum to be a greengage. The dreamy part of me wants to believe Karp wrong, though the scientist part of me knows he's got to be right.

Here is the description of the tree found in Register of New Fruit and Nut Varieties: 1920-1950, by Reid M. Brooks and H. P. Elmo:
My mom, who recommended this tree to me as a plum she enjoyed as a kid, originated near the same time in near the same area as this tree; it's practically family.

My young Howard Miracle plum gave me its second crop this year, a dozen fat, big-as-a-big-peach plums, fully flushed red with yellow flesh. Picked firm and unripe, this plum is painfully acidic and sour, but left to ripen on the tree until the flesh yields to pressure, this plum is remarkable. If you took honeysuckle and honey and ripe pineapple and another good plum, then blurred them together into a beautiful package, you might get something that tastes like a Howard Miracle. In my yard, it ripens now, mid-to-late July, after the peaches have finished up but before the Elephant Heart plums soften.

I've never seen this plum in a market, though I've read articles that refer to finding it in markets. In fact, I've never seen this plum anywhere other than on my tree, or in my hands, or on a plate, and on its way into my mouth.

Thank you Mr. Howard, for your miracle.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Sorting Garlic

My labeled seed stock for next year, lined up from smallest to biggest.

Sorting my garlic makes me feel rich. It takes a couple hours to clean up the heads, choose next year's seed garlic, and organize by store-ability, but doing it each mid-summer is a pleasure. Here is my process.

1) After all the garlic that has been hanging post-harvest from racks in my shed is dry, I bring the bundles to a large work surface. There, I cut off the tops, leaving about an inch-and-a-half stump on each. Leaving some of the stump like this helps them stay fresh longer. I keep each variety separate from the next because, at this point, I have yet to choose the seed garlic for next year's crop. If there are any clumps of dirt or untrimmed roots, I take care of those at this point, too.

2) Once garlic heads are all cleaned up, I spend a little time with each variety, choosing the best heads to be next year's seed stock. There are several factors I look for when choosing seed stock. The first is the variety's growth habits; I only save plants that grew healthily in the garden. This year, one new-to-me variety exhibited symptoms of mosaic virus in each of the plants, so while I'll eat the garlic, I'm saving none of this variety to plant next year. Another factor in seed stock selection is size: the heads need to be large, as large as possible for that variety. While different varieties do differ in size, overall, choosing and planting large seed stock year after year helps ensure that your crop will be large as well. As well, I make sure there are no injuries or bruises anywhere on the head of garlic. In the picture below of Basque Turban, I've chosen the head on the left rather than the one on the right; even though the damage is small and apparently superficial, it may allow rot to enter, destroying the life upon which next year's crop depends.

At this time, I also look at the shape of each bulb. I choose only bulbs that are symmetrically round. Even though, in the picture below, the individual cloves may be a little larger in the head of Donostia Red on the left, the symmetrical nature of the one on the right makes it a keeper. Keeping and planting asymmetrical heads encourage the possibility of "brooming," which occurs when cloves develop multiple sprouts as they're growing, leading to split heads that do not store well.

Below, you can see an example of Morado de Pedronera that has "broomed." This variety has "broomed" in my garden the last couple years, even though I've tried to grow out only the symmetrical heads. It seems to have a strong tendency to split; I won't grow it again next year.

3) Once I've selected my seed stock heads for each variety, I use a Sharpie and write the name of the variety directly on each head. I'm likely to get my varieties mixed up if I don't carefully label them. I then place all the seed stock in a heavy paper bag and place the bag somewhere dark and temperate, in my case, a hallway closet.

4) While I'm sifting through each variety, I often find a head that just looks "wrong" for some reason: the color differs from its peers, it looks like it has some kind of sponginess, or it exhibits some other irregularity. I remove these bulbs to use right away in the kitchen. In case they are beginning to weaken, I don't want them with the rest of my stored garlic infecting it in any way. The three bulbs pictured below are bulbs I separated from the rest of the haul.

5) At this point, I'm left with my eating crop that I want to be able to easily access, but also be able to put away, rather than having hundreds of garlic heads rolling around my kitchen. I use large mesh bags, the kind in which one buys oranges or wood chunks, to store my garlic. I place the shorter storing varieties—the Turbans, Asiatics, Marbled Purple Stripes, Artichokes—in one bag, and the long-storing variety—the Creoles who stay fresh well into the next season's harvest—in another. I hang these bags in the storage area attached to my kitchen.

6) And finally, it is time to scrub and erase my plant tags so I can use them again later. I won't need to do anything more with my garlic other than eat it until this fall, when planting time rolls around again.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Mystery Bean

A couple years ago, I joined Rancho Gordo's Bean Buddies, a group that grows out some of Rancho Gordo's beans, testing them for production in the home garden. The members compare notes on their growing experience of the year's test varieties. We receive the beans in the mail with only a name and no cultural information, so unless the bean is a well-known, or at least Googleable variety, each new-to-us bean is a mystery waiting for us to suss out its clues.

This year, along with my old standards and one new-to-me variety, I have three Rancho Gordo test varieties growing out in the bean bed. I requested these seeds from the 2013 Bean Buddies listing because of their rarity; all three come from Mexico, and the only information I can find on each at this point is the limited information provided to me with the seed: the name and origin of each variety. The first is Negro Delgado de Arbol, a variety from Cuicatlan, Oaxaca, that in my garden has vigorous vines with flower stalks that set four to six small pods that are tightly packed with small black beans. So far, the bean appears to be very productive. The second is Frijol Cacahuatle Putla, another variety from Oaxaca. This bean has short runners and doesn't set terribly prolifically, though each long pod has a good number of pretty, pink- and purple-mottled beans inside. Frijol Cacahuatle Putla definitely falls into the Phaseolus vulgaris species that many of our edible-podded and -seeded beans fit into, at least in the Western hemisphere. Negro Delgado de Arbol looks very Phaseolus vulgaris-y to me, too; though if it isn't P. vulgaris, the only other option it could be would be Phaseolus acutifolus (Tepary bean), but the bean is shaped like a P. vulgaris, not mini-lima bean shaped, like a Tepary bean.

Though most people have seen them, it is important at this moment to remember what a standard Phaseolus vulgaris vine looks like: twining round stems that are either green or purple; trifoliate perfect teardrop leaves; small white, pink, or purple flowers that occur in pairs along the blooming stems; and a little bit of rough fuzz all over the plant and bean pods (unless it is "greasy" variety). If you can picture that, you can picture a tepary bean vine, that looks quite similar, but has sharper-shaped, smaller leaves and seeds that are flattened like lima beans. Here are a couple photos of P. vulgaris vines to spark your memory.

P. vulgaris blossom, in this case on a Goldmarie vine.
P. vulgaris leaves on Blue Shackamaxon.
The third bean I'm growing out from Rancho Gordo is the most mysterious; its name is Frijol China Putla, but despite its name, it isn't like what we usually call china beans, which are usually P. vulgaris and produce fat, nearly-round dried beans that cook up to creamy deliciousness. Instead, it appears to be a cowpea of some sort, either Vigna unguiculata ssp unguiculata—the same subspecies from in which black-eyed peas and zipper peas and many other similar "field peas" live—or Vigna unguicalata ssp sesquipedalis. V. unguicalata ssp sesquipedalis, which I think is the likely candidate because of its vining nature, is the genetic home to the Asian "yardlong" beans, Red Noodle (a garden favorite at our ranchito), asparagus bean, and the like. Both Vigna unguicalata subspecies originated in Africa.

The Vigna unguicalata species has some very identifiable characteristics: vibrant green, hairless leaves; stems with edges; deep red splotches on the vine's joints; long (very long in the sesquipedalis subspecies), many-seeded pods; and finally, large, beautiful, lavender-butterfly flowers. Unfortunately, those evil seed-devouring sowbugs got most of my seedlings right at germination, but a few rallied, and one plant in particular is going to town. It has the tell-tale signs of a Vigna unguicalata.

Smooth, shiny, brilliant green leaves.
Stems with edges and with the distinct maroon splotch at a joint.
Long, full pods, even when immature. Here, a spider hangs out on a just-set pod.
Gorgeous, pea-shaped flowers.
So, I've narrowed down the genetic home of this plant, but I'm still left with questions.
  1. Do I eat the immature pod, like a yardlong bean, or the seeds inside, like a black-eyed pea? Either way, what is a traditional Mexican preparation of this plant?
  2. Are the Vigna unguiculata subspecies common in Mexico? I'm no expert on Mexican food, but I don't recall reading recipes that call for either black-eyed peas or yardlong beans. 
  3. If the V. unguiculata subspecies are common in Mexico, how did they get there? Did they move south from the Southern US where all sorts of field peas decorate the food history? Did they arrive somehow from Asia with a community, thus the name "China"? If so, how and with whom? Did they migrate north from more Afro-Caribbean countries where field peas are part of the food culture?
This plant has a story to tell. I'm listening hard to it as it grows, and I've put my ear to the Internet to hear more. Somehow or another, I'm going to track down this plant's history.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

So Big

Today I walked the dog, cut back the Mexican marigold and renegade sumac, tended the compost pile. And my intern and I picked blueberries, cleaned up under the peaches and harvested a bunch, then shucked the earliest beans to dry.

Among the beans was one of the most beautiful variations I'd ever seen, a Blue Shackamaxon perhaps exhibiting some crossed genetics or perhaps a mutation. The colors, jade and indigo, are hard to catch with my camera, but it gleamed jewelish. It looked like blue continents in a green ocean, the reverse of what the astronauts see gazing back at home, an earth in a bean.

There is no end to beauty.