Monday, July 4, 2011

Vegetables on July 4th

Today, the 4th of July holiday, I felt the turn to summer weather, more in the humidity than in the temperature. If the temperature was in the high 70s, the humidity was in the 80s. Some people celebrate the 4th with parades and fireworks; others think about 1776 and the American Revolution or the “war for independence” as it was called when I was a boy. I usually also think of vegetables on July 4th. It makes a bad pun out of a book that I read back about 1980 when I began gardening here on this island in Maine, called Gardening for Independence, by Mort Mather. Today was wet-shirt working weather, the kind that shortens the season for greens and broccoli, while the beans and tomatoes soak it up. It is time to show some of this year’s garden in photographs, and so instead of birds, apple blossoms, and wildflowers we have a few snapshots of domesticated crop vegetables, the kind I plant for “home use,” or eating. 

Potatoes from the market are all right in season, but one hasn’t tasted a potato unless it is fresh picked and cooked right from the garden; and the early potatoes are best. The plants are just beginning to blossom now; when the blossoms fall the small, new potatoes can be dug. In the three rows shown here, the ones on the right are Dark Red Norland and the ones on the left are Satina. In the middle, the front are the Norlands and there are about a half dozen Satina in the rear (not in the picture). The rows are about 25 feet long. The potatoes are in a separate garden, near the barn.

Next we are in the bean patch. Yeats had nine bean rows and I have ten, this year, each about 30 feet long. These are Jacob’s Cattle Gasless dry beans, after nearly a month in the ground. Jacob’s Cattle, or Trout, are a widely planted, New England heirloom dry bean. The name comes from the brown spots on the bean seeds, which I suppose look a little like spots on the sides of cattle. The “gasless” variety comes from a seed saver who bred the strain many years ago; it is offered without a guarantee and I got some via the Seed Savers Exchange about twenty years ago, and have kept the strain going. If you look closely you will see a marigold which discourages bean beetles and other pests. The most serious bean problems here are mold and anthracnose, which tend to arise from September rains.  

I’ve written about starting the tomato seedlings and planting them through IRT much; here they are pictured, altogether roughly 40 plants, about 25 for tomato puree and paste and salsa, and the others for fresh eating and experimentation--the experimental variety this year is "Red Short Vine" from Johnny's Selected Seeds. I do select and save bean seeds but not tomatoes. I don’t stake the tomatoes because the stakes (or pole beans or anything high in the garden) and high growing tomatoes attract the deer, who can jump the fence if they try hard enough and in some years they do. The deer don’t see the low tomatoes from a distance because of the grass that grows high around the edges of the fence. 

Next we are in the mustard and beet green patch; these are succession planted, and here are the first, beyond their prime for greens although the beets themselves if and when thinned will size up and taste good. The mustard patch is an experiment, a “braising mix” from Johnny’s, first planted May 17. It adds a real zing to salads. I have yet to do a stir fry with any of it. The stones that you see in these pictures are genuine and authentic New England garden stones, which are pushed up by the frost each year. I get rid of only the largest ones, figuring that if weeds can grow despite them, so can vegetables. Carrots suffer.

Now we are looking at the onions, spinach, and part of the shallot row behind the spinach. These I planted May 7th. Red Sails lettuce, planted last August, can be seen to the immediate right of the shallots. As I wrote earlier, it did not grow well in the fall and I just left it there over winter underneath Reemay cloth. When I uncovered it in April it was as I had left it, so I decided to see if it would grow, and it surprised me. It is time for a final harvest and freeze of the spinach as it will go to seed shortly. The last-August planted lettuce that you see here is amazingly non-bitter still, and about to go to seed as well. It was a combination of serendipity and a seat of the pants experiment.

Finally, we can see several vegetables in this last picture: broccoli, with the foreground leaves being eaten down by insects, and yet unless we get a real heat wave there will be a good harvest in a couple of weeks; lettuce, which is also succession planted with the oldest going to seed; brussels sprouts behind the broccoli, and cabbage behind some spinach that I planted last fall which is now going quite well to seed. I haven’t shown cucumbers or squash, but they are here. At this time of year it’s difficult to keep greens going in succession planting in the ground, so I’m going to try to plant them in flats and keep them cool if possible during the sprouting period, down cellar. 

The ecologists tell us that there is less species diversity on islands than on the mainland. When the Audubon Christmas bird count is done each year, that seems to confirm it. As for vegetable gardening, I've given up on a few species, so my garden is less diverse. I would grow corn if I could reliably keep the raccoons and earworms out of it, but I can’t, at least not without more effort than it’s worth. So I don't do it any more, although back in the 1980s I devoted an entire garden plot to it. I've given up on winter squash, also; not that it can't be grown here--it does well, in fact--but I find that I don't eat it. No eggplant this year, either, though for no good reason. One year, enthused over heirloom tomato varieties offered by members of the Seed Savers Exchange--I offered heirloom dry beans when I was a member in the 1980s and 1990s--I must have nursed thirty different varieties from seed to garden, just to see which ones did the best in this microclimate which is not, as someone once said, the tomato capitol of the planet. On a smaller scale I did the same with heirloom beans. One of the lessons learned is that a single growing year is not enough time to test a variety. How does it perform in a hot year, how does it do in a cool one? A wet one, a dry one? With a side dressing of fertilizer or without? When planted early or late? In soil that is more acidic or less? How does it respond to mulch? And so forth. Those continuous experiments with varieties, to see which grow best (and taste best), as well as continuous selection of the most vigorous, early, disease-free plants for seed, have served to make a better yielding, more efficient, and tastier produce garden. 

I didn't intend to make a longitudinal study when I started here in 1980, but it's happened. I have the yearly records, also, first kept in a notebook by hand, and then on the computer. At some point, when I have more time on my hands, I may post them on this blog for future reference, though with the caveat that what has worked for me over here on this island in eastern Penobscot Bay will not work the same way for you over there, wherever you may be. 

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