Thursday, July 26, 2012

If you like it then you'd better put a ring on it

Yes, I heard the forecasts of late blight. And no, I didn’t do much about it. But on my trip to the garden today to pick tomatoes for my husband’s birthday dinner—bless him, he said all he wanted for his birthday dinner was a freshly-picked tomato and basil pasta salad—I had a terrible discovery. Many of the early heirloom tomatoes had been infected with blight.

Insert necessary obscenities not fit to print.

Late blight on Romas: Courtesy of Cornell Cooperative Ext.
So I looked around. I weeded out the heirloom fruit that had clearly been infected and threw them far, far away. It seems that only my early heirlooms have suffered (knock on proverbial wood); the Celebrity variety, my Romas, Beefsteak, Early Girl, and questionable half-breed volunteers don’t seem to be, as yet, infected. I picked the heirlooms that were ready, as well as those that were almost ready, and those that were green but soft. One can, by the way, eat a soft green tomato—many heirloom varieties are bred that way, and they are quite tasty. The pasta salad including the heirloom green fruit was delicious.

I am quite worried, however, about my garden situation. I remember when late blight swept through in the summer of 2009—after many efforts to save my crops, and then finally my soil, in any way I could, I ended up uprooting my tomato, eggplant, pepper, and potato plants; piling them; and burning them. Blight is a fungus, and spreads through its airborne spores. It is insidious and devastating. Some have hypothesized (hopefully) that one can avoid blight through row covers, yet this doesn’t seem to be net enough against the spores; others have turned to specifically timed planting to prevent rot. Cornell Cooperative Extension suggests that one should plant a seed that is genetically immune to such diseases, or to treat your crops with targeted anti-fungal sprays and pesticides.  This is very effective for the large-scale commercial gardener.

See earlier posts for my view on this approach for the family garden.

If you too are finding yourself in this situation, or you live in a place that is expecting a blight, my advice is to use those green tomatoes. You can do so fresh— I would just lightly fry green tomato slices in olive oil, coat them in battered egg whites (three should do for a few large tomatoes) and then dip them in whole wheat bread crumbs, fry them again until crispy brown, and have them for breakfast.

However, if your green tomato harvest would consist of more fresh veg than you could eat—or if you like your produce all year round—it’s time to take Beyonce’s advice and put a ring on it.

A canning ring.

Even if your tomatoes are not ripe, there are several delicious ways to prepare—and can—green tomatoes. A simple google search will give lots of ideas.  Outside of that, here is one from antiquity—from my favorite cookbook , the Fannie Farmer:

Green Tomato Relish
2 quarts chopped green tomatoes
¾ salt
Cover, let stand 24 hours, and drain.

1 tsp pepper
1 ½ tsp mustard
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp allspice
1 ½ tsp ground cloves
¼ cup white mustard seed
1 quart mild cider vinegar
2 red or green peppers, sliced
1 chopped onion

Bring to a boil and cook 15 min. Hot pack into quarts.

Or, I would simply finely dice a few tomatoes. Measure them in a cup measure, and put them in a saucepan. Pour water into the saucepan until it covers the fruit with about an inch to spare. Add twice as much sugar in cups as there was fruit (or substitute fresh honey, and quarter the amount). Throw in some pineapple or apples if you feel creative (minced!).  Boil it down (stirring pretty often) until there is almost no liquid left, and hot pack it.  

(Sidenote: if anyone does not know what hot packing is, please do not be intimidated, it is incredibly easy. It simply means putting a boiling, sterilized substance into a sterilized jar that has been boiled. To hot pack:

Bring a big pot of water (like 10 quarts) to boil and submerge all the jars and lids you will use, as well as the business part of a stainless steel ladle. Let this jar-water-mix achieve a boil and then turn the heat off—they will continue to boil for quite a few minutes. Retrieve your materials from the water with long metal tongs and place them on a sterile surface.

In another pot, bring the mixture you plan on canning to a boil (this is almost always already done in the cooking process). Using that sterilized ladle (and a couple of oven mitts), ladle your mixture into the jars leaving about ½ space between the top of the mixture and the top of the jar, on average. Screw the sterilized top on. (Keep using those oven mitts.)

Once you are done with all of the jars, drop them back into that 10 quart pot, making sure the jars are vertically standing, aren’t touching and that there is at least one inch of water above the top of each jar. Turn the water back on and boil for about five minutes. Turn the burner off. When water is still steaming, retrieve (VERY CAREFULLY!) the jars with oven mitts and metal tongs. Set them on a flat cool surface. When you hear a pop! you know the jar has sealed. Just to make sure, press down on the center of the jar. If it gives at all, it has not sealed. If it is solid, feel safe to label it with a sharpie and store it in your pantry.)

However, if your fruit does not yet show signs of blight, cross your fingers and feel temporarily safe. One can, however, take preventative measures: in addition to crossing one’s fingers, staking tomato plants seems to be effective as it allows air flow to better circulate. Additionally, constant monitoring helps: if you see blight, get it the hell outta there.

On the bright side, whenever I have spotted a delectable fruit with only a small spot of blight on it, I have no compunction about carving it out and eating the rest. Delicious. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

In the weeds: how to instantly feel better about your garden

     As July rolls around, I always feel like I just finished settling my garden—meticulously grooming beds, planting seeds and seedlings, and shaping borders—to turn around and see the weeds taking over. Though I feel accomplished this does not seem like a time to rest on my laurels. After so much time in the garden, yes, my house is dusty; I have roughly 105 loads of laundry waiting (okay, maybe not quite that many, but it feels like it); my hammock has remained unvisited; I haven’t even started that stack of paperbacks I had set away as my summer reading; and my son has found that he needs to yell  “Moooom-mmmmy!” more than I feel should be necessary.

     We can’t do it all, and life is short. Additionally, my father always reminds me that the garden should be FUN, not a stressor. Thus, I have decided to take a more zen-like approach to my garden weeds. Instead of stressing about them and spending all my time culling them, I am going to do—well—nothing of the sort. Furthermore, in my pursuit of higher garden awareness, I have come to realize that some garden weeds can actually be beneficial. Frankly, I’ve decided to embrace my garden jungle.

     If you too are teetering on garden insanity, read on to feel good about doing absolutely nothing.

     Last year, I sowed leek seeds. My wonderful husband, in his infinite and extraordinary willingness to help, offered to hoe and weed-whack the area around the garden, in order to make a proper border. He unwittingly butchered my row of leek seeds. I had given them up as a bad job when suddenly, ninety days later, a plentiful leek crop arose in a bordering hayfield. Traumatic redistribution and competing plant life seemingly had very little effect.

Basil does just fine with a surrounding carpet of crab grass. 
     As a rule, I assiduously obey the rules of companion planting. My brassicas are clearly separated from my nightshades with alliums, and my three sisters camp well together. One day, I went down to discover volunteer (heirloom!) tomatoes had popped up everywhere—in the broccoli and the onions; in the melons and on the paths. I transplanted about fifteen of them into their own bed, but as they continued to crop up I’ve just about given up. Thus, despite my careful scheming, my cauliflower plot is intertwined with tomato. I look forward to observing whether or not either will impede the other’s growth, but as of now, both are thriving and blooming.

            Incidents like this remind me of the well-worn cliché that nature finds a way. Plants are engineered to outcompete rivals and find a way to survive. When we domesticate them we dull their edge a little, but even so, how much do they really need us? How important is it to keep a weed-free garden?

            The most popular method of keeping a tidy garden in the United States is to spray that garden with chemicals. Those chemicals then join the ground water to seep down into the water table. My family drinks from a well located on our property, about a hundred feet from the garden. Those chemicals are also then present on the leaves and fruit of garden plants. My two-year-old son—to my great delight—loves to pick berries and beans and eat them right off their stems.  Thus, it is obvious why I will not be using chemicals in the garden. In making that decision, however, I am faced with a very weedy problem.

            Weeds are unpreventable. If you use composted manure, the very best of fertilizers, you are signing on for germination of all the seeds within that manure (which are plenty). Get used to it.  This is simply reality—plants of all kinds instinctively grow in good soil. Ironically, the more weeds you have, the more fertile you know your soil is.  To suggest another cliché, weeds, like that euphemistic excrement, will happen.

            My step-grandmother, who actively transplants creeping charley and lamb's ears into her garden as groundcover, always reminds me that "weeds" are simply flowers in the wrong place. And in fact, I've allowed a patch of yarrow (which developed beautiful purple blossoms that I harvested for tea) to grow up in my perennial garden. "Weeds",  therefore, are not entirely bad.  They may deflect those ominous looking insects you may have originally seen; I noticed my eggplant was getting munched on quite a bit and then, less out of purpose than of simply busy-ness, I saw some weeds grow up in the eggplant patch and—guess what—the insects preferred the weeds over the eggplants. I think I’ll be letting some of those weeds stand.

            Furthermore, in a raised-bed layout such as mine, small weeds prevent erosion on the sides of my raised beds and provide a groundcover through which other weeds cannot penetrate. I am a big fan of crab grass. I know this sounds crazy, but I love it when I see crab grass growing through my garden because I know it (a) holds up the soil walls of my raised beds; (b) prevents other weeds from growing; and (c) is nutritious when it decomposes back into the soil.

            All this being said, it is important to make sure weeds are not directly impeding seedling growth. Definitely pull weeds in the immediate area of seedlings, and make sure no weed is impeding their water or sun receipt. 

There are things more important than weeding the garden. 
            When you do have to pull weeds, however, the best thing to do is to simply leave them there. That’s right. Don’t make piles for discard. Don’t throw them out of the garden. We are conditioned to purge what we perceive as harmful, and habitually eject our garden debris. The most labor saving and organically nutritional thing you can do is to leave the pulled weeds in the beds. As they decompose, they will (a) block out the sunlight for up and coming weeds, and (b) add nutrients to your garden. You could actually have a garden-wide mulch of pulled weeds. Glorious, nutritive, and easy.

            So chill the champagne. Cue the Coltrane. Shake out your favorite blanket.  With this outlook, today will certainly involve a novel—and perhaps an afternoon nap.