The Year of the Pepper

In the veggie garden this year, eggplants, tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash all bombed. Rotting zucchini plants were everywhere and tomatoes that peaked early and then languished was the norm.  The mid-Atlantic had record rainfall and it seemed every day there was a chance of showers. And shower it did! Non-stop for five solid months, it was mud season all summer.

Raised beds would have helped with my veggies garden as they help with drainage

From May through July 2018, much of the East Coast, especially the Mid-Atlantic, experienced rainfall up to 300% of normal according to NOOA. The soggy summer was described this way by NOOA, “in June and July, the epicenter for heaviest rains became focused over the Mid-Atlantic, as monthly rains near Washington, D.C. through central Pennsylvania easily eclipsed 200% of normal”. The rains here in Maryland have been so heavy that May to July was the wettest in the state’s 124 history. This pattern continued into October. Also, the heat was turned up so I call this summer our “tropical rain forest year”. It felt heavy and humid every day which translates to Heat + Humidity = More Disease. 

Mad Hatter is one of my favorite varieties; If you keep them on the plant, they turn red

The wet weather affected my vegetable garden yields greatly, and any vining veggies, like cucumbers, squash, and melons, totally succumbed to disease from wet conditions.  But to my total surprise, my pepper crop reveled in the rain and heat and broke all records for producing quantities of peppers. We have been eating peppers at every meal- sweet, hot, and slightly hot are all producing prodigiously even into the end of October.

Piles of peppers

I used all AAS Winners (All American Selections National and Regional Winners) for seed which have been tested for garden performance all over North America from a panel of expert judges. Reliable new varieties that have proved their superior garden performance in trial gardens is the way to go for me. Like a stamp of approval from experienced gardeners, my AAS peppers included: Cayenne Red Ember, Hungarian Mexican, Escamillo, Mexican Sunset, Habanero Roulette, Mad Hatter, Pretty N Sweet, and Mama Mia Giallo.

I grew some bell peppers for stuffing also

Growing all my plants from seed, I planted about 20 different transplants out in May and forgot about them for the next two months. Peppers thrive on neglect and yes, I neglected them while I constantly tried planting new cucumbers and squash to no avail. I didn’t harvest one. But when I totally despaired of my vegetable garden, the peppers started to come in and are still producing.

Growing some of my peppers in containers was the best choice I made this year. The ones in containers excelled and when frost started to hit in late October, I whisked them into my greenhouse, where they are still producing.

I placed my containers of peppers in my greenhouse

Peppers 3 Ways

What to do with all this bounty? I have tried these three ways this season.

Drying peppers
Piles of dried peppers; I store in the freezer as I found that they got moldy otherwise

Freeze Drying

Wash peppers and let dry. Cut in half and lay on a dehydrator tray and dry for about 24 hours. Store the dried peppers in plastic freezer baggies, and store in freezer. Pull them out as needed.

Freezing

Wash peppers and let dry. Chop peppers up into pieces and place in freezer bags. I like to mix red and green pepper together. I freeze them in small quantities that are recipe-ready.

Place chopped peppers into freezer bags squeezing any excess air out

Blackened

My favorite treatment by far: Wash your peppers and dry. Heat up some canola oil in a fry pan until hot and sizzling. Dump your peppers in one layer and stir to flip them to all sides until blackened. Squeeze juice of one lime into the pan and sprinkle with kosher or sea salt. Eat by biting the pepper right off the stem that will include the seeds. Delicious! Watch out for the hot ones!

Saute and blacken
Ready to eat

 

Bee Catnip-Mountain Mint

Bringing bugs into the garden is the new norm, not spraying with insecticides every insect that alights on a leaf. A sea change in how gardeners operate is in motion and most gardeners are embracing it with gusto. Seeing the Monarch numbers plummet recently has brought home the importance of home gardeners taking charge and embracing this change for the better.

Mountain Mint flower
Mountain Mint flower

Wildlife Value

Not all plants are equal in their ability to support pollinators with nectar and pollen. Penn State has conducted a series of trials on different pollinator plants that evaluated plants for their numbers of insect visitation as well as for their vigor and blooming. Go to their site at Penn State trials to check it out. Not only the number of insect visitors is important, but also the diversity.

I will be profiling a series of plants in the next year that are really important to pollinators- be it honeybee, native bee, hummingbird, beetles, butterflies, or flies. Top of the list is a little-known mint, called Mountain Mint which blooms for 15 to 16 weeks.

Early growth of Mountain Mint in the spring
Early growth of Mountain Mint in the spring

According to Penn State trials, overall, the single best plant in both 2012 and 2013 and 2014 for attracting both pollinators and total insects was Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum). A 30-inch-tall, wood’s-edge native perennial with grayish-green leaves and pale-pink summer flower clusters, it is hardy in zones 4 to 8. Originally discovered in Pennsylvania in 1790, this plant increasingly is being rediscovered by savvy gardeners and added to landscapes.

The sheer number of insects that you see on Mountain Mint is amazing; The entire plant buzzes
The sheer number of insects that you see on Mountain Mint is amazing; The entire plant buzzes

Uses

Mountain Mint is both edible and medicinal. Raw or cooked, the flower buds and leaves are edible and have a hot, spicy, mint-like flavor that makes a great spice or seasoning for meat.

An aromatic herb used in potpourri and as a bath additive, Mountain Mint will freshen laundry in the dryer. Thrown into a drawer, it will keep clothes fresh and moths away. Said to be a good natural insecticide, the dried plant repels insects but the growing plant attracts them! Containing pulegone, the same insect repellent found in pennyroyal, it repels mosquitoes when rubbed into the skin.

Mountain Mint positively dances with all the pollinators that are attracted to it.

How To Grow

Mountain Mint grows up to 2 to 3 ft. tall, usually branched on the upper half, growing from slender rhizomes (underground stems) usually in clusters. The lance -shaped leaves are 1-2 inches long and light green turning to almost white as the plant matures. Blooming in late summer to early fall, flat clustered flowers top the plant with 1/2 inch long pale lavender blooms. Gather tops and leaves when flowers bloom and dry for later herb use.

Not attractive to deer, Mountain Mint will also grow in tough dry shade conditions. Being a typical mint member, this mint travels! So, place it in an out-of-the-way place that it can run free.

Mountain Mint is one of the best nectar sources for native butterflies, and is a nectar filled landing pad for all pollinators.

Mountain Mint label at Heartwood Nursery
Mountain Mint label at Heartwood Nursery

Sources

Many good nurseries will carry this plant. Locally, you can find it at Heartwood Nursery , a great native plant nursery in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. I found the plants on-line at The Monticello Shop in Charlottesville, Virginia, and even on Etsy and Ebay.

Dwarf Tomato Project

I like growing a variety of tomatoes, especially heirlooms which can get quite large
I like growing a variety of tomatoes plants, especially heirlooms which can get quite large; These are all from full-sized plants

Tomato Plant Lingo

Pruning, staking, pinching, tying up branches are all jobs that come with a good tomato harvest. Particularly indeterminate plants which are simply plants that continue to grow quite large and fruit continuously until frost. Determinate plants, or “bush” plants grow to a more compact height (4-6 feet high), stop growing when the fruit sets on the terminal or top bud, and ripens the entire crop at once, approximately over a 2 week period and then dies. But what if you could have a compact plant, 3 to 4 feet, that produces all season long? Intrigued when I heard about a project for developing dwarf tomato plants,  I wanted more information and seeds to try them. More space to grow more varieties? Deal me in!

Brad Gates of Wild Boar Farms with a towering heirloom tomato plant
Brad Gates of Wild Boar Farms with a towering heirloom tomato plant

I grow tomatoes in a pretty large space, 60′ x 40′, and when empty it looks like I could fit a lot of veggies in that wide open area. But once I start planting out my 12 to 15 tomato plants (sometimes more), along with squash, lettuce, beans, and other assorted cutting flowers, the space shrinks considerably and I run out of room. A fully grown caged tomato plant turns into a monster with branch tentacles that reach out of the cage in all directions so that it is hard to pass between plants. I was ready for some compact plants. And I love to try new varieties. Go to Pushing the Tomato Envelope to see some suggestions.

 A rainbow of dwarf varieties-courtesy of Craig LeHouillier
A rainbow of dwarf varieties-courtesy of Craig LeHouillier

Dwarf Tomatoes Are Here!

Thanks to the Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project, a 2006 brainstorm between Craig LeHouillier, a tomato hobbyist, and Patrina Nuske Small, an Australian gardener, citizen scientists pitched in and are working on an all-volunteer, all-amateur, open-source worldwide non-profit breeding effort. A team of everyday backyard growers from all over the world in the northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere collaborated which meant that two generations of experiments could be done in a single calendar year-thus cutting the time of development in half.

tomato
Tomatoes need pruning, tying up and supporting to help in air circulation to reduce disease

Great Taste

The goal of the project was to develop great new dwarf varieties on sturdy and compact plants with high yields and colorful fruits and of course – great taste. There are lots of space-challenged tomato lovers who would jump at the chance at growing any of these varieties as long as the taste remains the same high quality either in containers or in a garden. Described as sweet and mild, tart, smoky, rich, and even salty, the taste of the new varieties will please any tomato lovers palate.

Dwarf tomato plants in grow bags-courtesy of Craig Lehouillier
Dwarf tomato plants in grow bags-courtesy of Craig LeHouillier; Notice the crinkled or “rugose” leaves

Craig LeHouillier

Craig LeHouillier, known as Tomatoman and for his introduction to the world – the luscious Cherokee Purple tomato– and Patrina Small were the driving force behind the project of crossing colorful tasty, indeterminate heirloom tomatoes and the few available dwarf tomato varieties to produce unique hybrids. Six to ten generations were planted out to stabilize a new variety and volunteers grow these new varieties for carefully selected seed companies to distribute. The new varieties are great-tasting, open-pollinated tomatoes that require less space and are easier to take care of.

Criag LeHouillier and wife Susan-photo courtesy of Craig LeHouillier
Criag LeHouillier and wife Susan-photo courtesy of Craig LeHouillier
Craig is author of Epic Tomatoes
Craig is the author of Epic Tomatoes

Attributes

Dwarf tomatoes have crinkly dark-green leaves, termed “rugose” and grow about half of the height of an indeterminate tomato, around 3 to 4 feet.

Dwarf tomato plant showing the crinkly foliage
Dwarf tomato plant showing the crinkly foliage

There are early, mid-season, and late season fruit options so you can enjoy dwarf varieties all season long, just like in the larger heirlooms. The central stems are thicker than other tomatoes and the fruit comes in the 3 to 18 ounce range. So, these aren’t dwarf fruit! Colors range across the tomato spectrum with orange, stripes, yellow, amber, bi-colors, stripes, blacks (purple & chocolate), pink, red, white and green (when ripe) shades; A veritable rainbow! For more information about the project, go to Dwarf Tomato Project.

Rainbow colors of dwarf varieties, courtesy Craig LeHouillier
Rainbow colors of dwarf varieties, courtesy Craig LeHouillier

Sources

So where can gardeners pick these up and what kind of selection is available? According to Craig LeHouillier, “We have 60 in seed catalogs (mostly between the four companies Victory, Sample Seed Shop, Heritage Seed Market and Tatiana’s TOMATObase).  Probably another 5-6 coming out next year, and dozens in development”.

I have already ordered my seeds as it is time to start those seeds right now!

Heritage Seed Market

Sample Seed Shop

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Victory Seeds

Tatiana’s TOMATObase

 

A Tomato Grower’s Best Friend

Parasitic larvae feeding on tomato hornworm
Parasitic larvae feeding on tomato hornworm found on my tomato plant

As you look for that first tomato this summer, and you find a tomato hornworm with white rice shaped projections emerging from it that look like aliens, leave it alone! This is nature taking care of a pesky caterpillar that you don’t want to be eating your tomato plants.

The parasitic wasp that does this is a Braconid that is attracted to gardens with flowering plants where they co-exist with other beneficial insects and animals.

A parasitic wasp of the Braconidae family
A parasitic wasp of the Braconidae family (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By depositing her eggs on the back of an unsuspecting caterpillar, the larvae have a ready food supply to nourish them to grow and pupate, eating the caterpillar alive!

Companion planting of herbs and flowers in a veggie garden is helpful in keeping your garden healthy and free of pests. The pollen and nectar of these flowers attract beneficial predators that will feed on some pesky insects that feed on your veggies. Now I just have to find something like this that will feed on Stinkbugs!!

English: Tomato Hornworm photographed after re...
English: Tomato Hornworm photographed after removing from tomato plant. Battle Creek, Michigan, 04 Aug 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Blueberry Bonanza

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Rabbit Eye blueberries change to pink first and then blue

On a recent trip to the foot of the Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia, we were traveling the highway when I spotted a sign that said “Pick your own blueberries” and we made an impromptu and screeching halt. We entered the driveway and were confronted with a field of about 25o blueberry bushes that dotted a sunny hillside right next to the highway with cars whizzing past. No one was manning the field but the bushes were cared for with the field mown and the weeds pulled at the base of the bushes. The birds were everywhere, though there were berries enough for man and beast with blueberry laden branches brushing the ground .

Blueberry bushes on a hillside
Blueberry bushes on a hillside

Entering the farm field and weighing station, we were in another world with painstakingly written signs instructing us how to pick the berries on the honor system. The notes also updated us on how the family was doing, that someone had passed away, and informed us that an old dog named Cap might stop by and we were to pet her and call her by name!

Dogs resting in the shade while their owners pick blueberries
Dogs resting in the shade while their owners pick blueberries
The milk carton hanging around his neck made the picking easy for my husband
The milk carton hanging around his neck made the picking easy for my husband

The picking was made easy by an ingenious container which was simply an old milk jug with the top cut off and a piece of clothesline around the handle so you could slip it on over your head for hands free picking. The jug could hold a couple of pounds of berries easily!

After picking for an hour in intense heat, we weighed up and picked almost 10 pounds of blueberries at 2.50 a pound. That is a lot of blueberries as the berry is so small. It is hard to accumulate some weight with blueberries rather than strawberries which fill up your container much faster.

Weighing station with picking gear, an old gallon milk jug with the top cut out and a rope around the handle so you have both hands to pick
Weighing station with picking gear, an old gallon milk jug with the top cut out and a rope around the handle so you have both hands to pick

After weighing in and transferring the berries to green cardboard containers, we put our money in the slot of the cash box and left with our bagged and boxed up berries, never seeing the farmer.

The variety that we picked was the Rabbiteye blueberry which is native to the southeastern United States and is unique in that a native southeastern blueberry bee, Habropoda laboriosa pollinates. Virginians mostly grow the Rabbiteye variety as it is suited to southern climates.

English: rabbit-eye blueberry, Vaccinium virgatum
English: rabbit-eye blueberry, Vaccinium virgatum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here in MD, it is unique in that we can grow both the Rabbiteye and the Highbush variety which is native to the northeast. They both have pros and cons, but the Rabbiteye shrub gets larger and lives longer than the Highbush. So, while I was in Virginia, I visited a nursery and picked up a Rabbiteye blueberry variety called Premier. In the nursery it was full of ripe berries and after I bought it, I picked at least a quart of berries off the bush! I am going to plant it next to my Highbush varieties and compare the two. Supposedly, the Rabbiteye isn’t as hardy but I think in MD it will be OK.

After getting the berries home and washing them, I filled up gallon freezer bags with the berries and stuck them in the freezer.  With the garden chores during the summer, I will put off the process of blueberry jam making until winter when I have more time.

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Grafted Tomatoes-What’s Next??

Beautiful Heirloom Tomatoes
Beautiful Heirloom Tomatoes

Grafted tomatoes has been touted as the biggest development to happen in the last 2o years in gardening.  That is a really big claim! I can think of others- the popularity of container gardening comes to mind right away and how about the popularity of heirloom varieties? So, I was intrigued when I heard about this new thing come down the pike of grafting tomatoes. Grafting fruit has been done for ages, such as apples and grape varieties to hardy root-stock to improve disease resistance and productivity. So, why haven’t tomatoes been grafted? Well, it turns out it has been done in Europe for a while.  The U.S. is just a little slow in catching on.

One of the reasons, the plants do better is because of greater root growth-thus more gathering of water and nutrients.  Another benefit for me is regular tomatoes stop setting fruit once the temps reach above 86 degrees –  for grafted plants, it is 90 degrees.  That is significant as it can really hit the 90’s here for weeks.

The difference between a grafted and a straight tomato
The difference between a grafted and a straight tomato

The idea is simple.  Take a scion or piece of a good tasting heirloom that is low producing and prone to lots of diseases, and grafting it to a big producing tomato that has disease resistance built-in. Kind of like grafting ‘Brandywine‘ tomato that is delicious but not a huge producer, to ‘Big Boy’ that is prolific as well as tough.

Various heirloom varieties of tomatoes from Landreth Seeds
Various heirloom varieties of tomatoes from Landreth Seeds

Good idea, but does it work? Go look at this video to see the benefits. http://www.portlandnursery.com/video/vegetables-herbs/video-graftedTomatoes.shtml

Burpee Home Gardens has produced a new trademark called Bumper Crop which promises “bigger harvest of heirloom favorites!” They say that Bumper Crop Tomatoes are a new twist on a natural, centuries old grafting technique which will produce up to 50% bigger harvests of delicious heirloom tomatoes. As anyone knows who has grown heirloom tomatoes, the plants don’t produce the volume that hybrids do, and the heirlooms are prone to every disease known to man. I thought I would give it a whirl!

I went to my local nursery and picked up a ‘Mortgage Lifter‘ tomato that was grafted onto an unidentified hybrid tomato.  It wasn’t cheap and it set me back $15! I am not used to paying this much for one tomato plant so it better be worth it. You can clearly see the graft or the join low on the stem, and the directions tell me that it is very important to make sure the grafting scar is at least 1 inch above the soil when planted. I actually have a ‘Mortgage Lifter’ plant already planted so I think this is a good comparison between the two plants.

English: Grafted tomato plants
English: Grafted tomato plants (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am used to planting my tomato plants deep and found out the reason for planting the tomato with the graft line above the soil, is you want the grafted heirloom to produce the fruit, and not the hybrid plant which is below the graft line to root along the stem and take over.  There are even tomato plants with double grafts that will produce two different kinds of tomatoes on one plant.  A great space saver for someone with a small garden!

English: Grafted tomato plants should be plant...
English: Grafted tomato plants should be planted so that the union is well above the soil line in order to reduce contact between the scion and potential plant pathogens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Because the graft union can be kind of weak, it is necessary to support your grafted tomato plant until the plant gets some growth on it and becomes stronger.

I planted the grafted plant outside and am waiting to see. I am assuming that it is a determinate plant, one that grows a certain height and then stops but am not sure. This is an experiment so let me know if anyone else has planted these so we can compare.

Leaning Tower of Potatoes

English: Different potato varieties. – The pot...
English: Different potato varieties. – The potato is the vegetable of choice in the United States. On average, Americans devour about 65 kg of them per year. New potato releases by ARS scientists give us even more choices of potatoes to eat. Deutsch: Verschiedene Kartoffelsorten (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love different types and colors of potatoes and am always ready to try purple or even more exotic colors.  The different hues can be expensive at farmers markets and grocery stores, so I try to grow them but have always been discouraged about how much room the plants consume as well as the labor of digging them up.

So, trolling through Pinterest one day, I noticed a nifty idea of growing potatoes in a very small space.  Build up!! this is actually a very efficient use of space in a vegetable garden.

Potato Tower
Potato Tower

First I found my seed potatoes at a nursery and cut them up into chunks. I couldn’t find any exotic ones at the nursery so bought some purple ones at the grocery store and used them just like the nursery ones. Each chunk should have at least one “eye” on it.  Leaving the potatoes out for a day or so helps with the sprouting so I left them alone while I assembled my hardware.

Cut up seed potatoes
Cut up seed potatoes

You will need a short length of 4′ high fencing, rusty or otherwise, plus some zip ties to hold it together.  One bale of straw, granular fertilizer, and topsoil completes your ingredients.

My tower was about 3 feet in diameter and I just layered 6 inches of topsoil with a thick layer of fresh straw. On each layer, I placed my potato chunks on the edge of the tower facing out. I scattered liberal amounts of fertilizer on each layer. I did about 4 layers of my potato “cake”.

It took a couple of weeks for the potatoes to sprout but now I have a leaning tower of potato plants. The tower settled and shifted slightly but it seems pretty stable. It must weigh a ton!

When the plants die back in the fall, I should be able to unhook the wire fencing and the potatoes will fall out. I hope! I will post the results in the fall.

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Roll wire fencing into a tube 3′ in diameter
Place the potato chunks on the outside edge facing out
Place the potato chunks on the outside edge facing out

If the tower seems to be too much work, read this blog about growing potatoes in buckets, http://www.housekeeping.org/blog/20-diy-blogs-show-you-how-to-plant-potatoes-in-a-bucket/

There are more ways to skin a cat!

Related articles

Heirloom Tomatoes

A sinkful of Roma tomatoes
A sinkful of Roma tomatoes (good for sauce)

Picking those juicy tomatoes is just around the corner, and if you are thinking about growing them from seed, you better get planting!

Everybody has heard of heirloom veggies and there are entire seed companies that dedicate their offerings to continuing the thousands of varieties that the mainstream companies don’t offer any more. You are missing out, if all you plant are ‘Better Boytomatoes because there are tomatoes for eating, slicing, canning, juicing, making paste or sauce, or just to pop in your mouth for that fresh tomato flavor burst. Here is a guest post from John Fendley of Sustainable Seed Company:

Heirloom Tomatoes – Varieties for Every Palate, but Where Do You Start?

By John Fendley of Sustainable Seed Company

 

There are hundreds of varieties of heirloom tomatoes as deliciously unique in their flavors as the people who saved them over the years.  Varieties range from black tomatoes with a sweet and smoky flavor and cherry tomatoes with a tart tang to giant beefsteak tomatoes that drip with juice as you bite into a summer BLT.

Beautiful Heirloom Tomatoes
Beautiful Heirloom Tomatoes

Hungry for summer yet?  I know I am, and it is compounded by looking online at all the heirloom tomato seeds!  Each seed carries the promise of a flavor explosion in my mouth as I stroll through the garden, with the thought of tasting all those summer time tomato treats.

But where do you start?  Since these are edibles, flavor seems like a good place to start.

But you should also consider space requirements.  How much room do you have?  Will you want to plant determinate (short non-sprawling) varieties because you only have patio space for pots?  Or do you have lots of room to plant giant beefsteak tomatoes that sprawl for miles?

Next, consider how you plan to use and enjoy your tomatoes?  Will you can them?  If so you want can varieties that have dry flesh making it easier to cook them down like Chico III.  Chico is prolific, producing tons of fruit all at the same time.  It makes a great all-around sauce, but if you are looking for a little more flavor from a canner, try black plum.  It makes a sweet and smoky sauce that is sure to have your dinner guests raving!

Maybe, you are not a canner and want to eat your heirloom tomatoes fresh.  Try cherry tomatoes varieties for salads.  Perfect for those of us that don’t like cutting things up, just pop them right in the salads.  Coyote is perfect for this and you will love the flavor.  That is if you even have any left from the trip back to the kitchen.  Yes, they are that good!

What about the beefsteaks we talked about?  These are big, fat tomatoes, so good that the juice literally drips down your face when you take a bite out of them.  Everyone loves them, but they need lots of space to grow and plenty of staking, which prevents their heavy, fruit-laden vines from falling over.

Then there are colors!  Heirloom tomatoes literally come in every color of the rainbow, and this is the reason great chefs around the world love them so.   It is like painting with a palette of rainbow colors.  There are reds of course, but also purples, yellows, oranges, blacks, green, red / yellow striped and even white tomatoes.

Start growing your own delicious rainbow of heirloom tomatoes today from Sustainable Seed Co.  We have 300 varieties of delectable heirloom tomatoes sure to fit everyone’s palate.

The beautiful array of colors of heirlooms
The beautiful array of colors of heirlooms

Enter our Pin-it to Win-it Contest where 10 lucky gardeners will receive $50 gift certificates to create their own organic seed garden. Check out Sustainable Seed on Pinterest for a chance to win your Dream Garden.

Okra – Superfood Superstar

Okra bloom with pods ready to be picked

I ended up with some free Okra seeds this spring and thought I would try them, not thinking at all about eating them, but just to enjoy the beauty of the plants. Now they are 6 feet tall and producing tons of okra pods every few days so I am trying to use them in cooking.  I did some research about Okra – it’s nutritional benefits, and how to prepare it, and I think that I found another one of those superfoods, like blueberries!

Beautiful okra flower

According to the blog Healthy, Happy, Life: http://kblog.lunchboxbunch.com/2009/04/okra-nutrition-facts-surprise-its-super.html, they rave about Okra’s benefits:

” Though okra was voted most hated veggie, it can actually be quite tasty and nutritious! So I’m here to convert the haters to lovers!Okra is actually incredibly healthy despite its unappealing reputation. Okra is low in calories. One cup of raw okra only has around 30 calories. And in that low-calorie cup is a whopping 66% RDA of Vitamin K! Okra is also high is calcium, fiber, vitamin C, protein, folate, manganese and magnesium. Why munch not-nutrient-dense celery or iceberg lettuce for a low-calorie veggie when you can munch the much-more-nutrient-dense super food veggie okra!”

Here is the complete nutrition information about Okra which completely blew me away!
OKRA
serving size: 1 cup raw, chopped
(about 6 spears)
calories: 31
fat: 0 g
carbs: 7 g
protein: 2 g
fiber: 3 g
Vitamin K: 66% RDA
Vitamin C: 35% RDA
folate: 22% RDA
thiamin: 13% RDA
manganese: 50% RDA
magnesium: 14% RDA

Phytochemicals:
Okra – beta carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin

Low in calories and an amazing source per calorie of Vitamin K, fiber and Manganese.  Okra is a stellar veggie that you have to learn to love!

One day of picking

Growing

The seeds are large and easy to sow after danger of frost is over, here about May 10, covering with about 1 inch of soil. I thinned the seedlings to stand about 18 inches apart and then forgot about them.  Next thing I knew the plants were 3 feet tall with beautiful leaves that look like marijuana plants!

Large beautiful leaves

The flowers, since they are related to hibiscus, are beautiful also with a soft yellow cast and a reddish center. They bloom for one day only, and then form a pod which should be picked within a few days, before it gets too long and tough. I picked the pods from 1 inch to 4 inches long for eating, and the larger ones for drying for dried flower arrangements. There is also a purplish reddish okra pod.

I harvest the pods every few days

Reading about other people experiences with growing Okra, it sounds like the plants can tower up to 9 or 10 feet tall! I believe it, as mine are going strong and are almost 6 feet high now. Being a Southern plant, Okra thrives in hot weather which we have had plenty of this summer.

Cooking

Cutting up okra, you see the large seeds

I like to slice the pods up crosswise about 1/3 of an inch thick and saute them in olive oil with tomatoes and onions.  Okra pods are a natural thickener and with watery tomatoes, they thicken the tomatoes up nicely. I love tamale pie and here is my take on it using okra:

Tamale Okra Casserole

Tamale pie
Tamale pie (Photo credit: TheLawleys)

1 onion, chopped

a clump of fresh thyme

1 red bell pepper, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

8 okra pods, sliced

1 large chicken breast, chopped into 1 inch chunks

4 large tomatoes, chopped

1 tsp chili powder

1 tsp cumin

salt and pepper to taste

Saute chopped onion,  4 or 5 strands of fresh thyme, 7 or 8 chopped up okra pods, a chopped large red pepper, a couple of cloves of garlic, and a chicken breast chopped up into 1 inch chunks. After these cook up and leave a brown crust on the saute pan, drop in large chopped tomatoes with seasonings of chili powder, cumin, salt, and pepper. Cook for about 8 minutes until nice and thick. Remove any stems of thyme. Place mixture into a casserole dish and top with Polenta below, and cook for 25 minutes at 350 degrees. Pull out of oven and spread 2 cups of shredded cheddar on top and bake an additional 5 minutes.

Top with sour cream and green onions if desired.

Polenta

1 cup of water set to boil in a large heavy saucepan

Whisk together 1 1/2 cup of cold water and 1 1/2 cup of corn meal until smooth. Whisk into the boiling water in saucepan until smooth and thick. Spread on top of casserole.

English: Red okra pods
English: Red okra pods (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like to fry okra in cornmeal like they do in the south. Gumbo is next on my list to try, and I will attempt freezing some. I love to grill and will grill some because everything tastes better grilled!

Plate of okra
Plate of okra (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Drying

If the okra pods get too large, you end up with monsters that can be quite tough and stringy. I like to dry these large pods by placing the okra on a cookie sheet lined with a paper towel and place in the sun outdoors for a couple of weeks. The pods dry with prominent ribs and stripes and are wonderful to use in dry pod arrangements.

Dried okra pods

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Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Cucumbers

Pickling cucumber almost ready to pick

Cucumbers are spilling out of my vegetable drawer and my harvest basket.  I am picking at least 8 to 10 a day, sometimes more! I can’t give them away fast enough! So, I am going to make Bread and Butter pickles and Hamburger Dill pickles which I love and are so much better than store-bought. There is nothing like home-made pickles! Jars of pickles make great gifts and it just so happens I am going to a house-warming party this weekend, so I will make sure I make enough.

Bread and Butter pickles

For small batches, I use the book, Food in Jars, and for larger batches I use the Blue Ball book of preserving. The Food In Jars book will give you interesting recipes for small batches, such as a single jar of Dill pickles that you keep out on your counter (covered with cheesecloth) that will ferment and turn sour over a couple of weeks.  No water bath is needed, you can keep it in the frig for up to a year though.
The Ball Home Preserving book gives you detailed instructions on equipment used for canning, both pressure and hot water and lots of recipes where you will make multiple quarts and pints ready to store in your pantry. Yo should own this if you are doing serious canning.

Cucumber Growing

Cucumbers are so easy to grow that you could have a brown thumb and they would be no problem. Just pop some seeds in loamy soil in sun or partial sun and wait for the results. Everything in the literature about growing cucumbers say full, full sun but I have been successful in part day sun. I have a large veggie garden but have a small corner with sprawling cucumber vines that is in part day sun and the cucumbers are loving it. I planted 2 varieties, a Burpee Bush and a slender one, thinking that they would produce enough for pickles and have enough for fresh slicing. And they are going gangbusters.  When I select the seed to plant in the winter, I just make sure that the variety is resistant to mosaics and rust diseeases which can kill cucumbers before they get going. I never water or coddle them as they are the most forgiving of vegetables to grow. Cucumbers will produce a crop for several weeks running and then the cucumber beetles get to them and they are finished.  That is ok with me as I am sick of them by that time.

Cucumber vines

Picking

Right after 4th of July, I begin to pick them, just a few –  then a deluge builds up to a peak of picking. My pickle making is done at the peak which is right now! I pick them at least once a day, sometimes twice as they can get ahead of you quickly. I make sure they are young and slender and still prickly.  Once the cucumbers get too large, the flesh gets seedy and pithy – not good eating.

One day of picking

Pickle Time

Pickles are relatively easy to make but can be intimidating if you have never made them before. I have been making them for years, way before canning got trendy.  Now with farmer’s markets and sustainability being trendy, people are learning about canning all over again. Canning is something that your grandmother used to do with all those veggies coming from the garden all at once before freezers were around to keep food. I am seeing lots of new cookbooks out about preserving foods and even canning classes at adult education.

cucumber
cucumber (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people use the cold method of making pickles because you don’t need a canner and you keep them in the refrigerator. This is convenient for small batches. I prefer the hot water bath canning because I make a lot and keep them in my pantry for at least a year and use the jars up one by one.  I don’t want them in my refrigerator taking up room.

Pickle shelf
Pickle shelf (Photo credit: Meer)

Equipment

Canner – You need a boiling water canner with a wire rack that lowers the jars into the boiling water. This is available on-line or any good hardware or housewares store.

Canning Salt – I picked this up at Wal Mart. Salt is used to create a brine for the pickles to start the process of pickling.  Most salts have an additive, an anti-caking substance, which could cloud your pickling brine.  The pickling salt does not have this additive.

Canning salt

Pickling Spices – This is a mixture of various whole spices, like peppercorns, mustard seed, broken up bay leaves, sometimes cinnamon and hot peppers. You can make up your own or buy it already prepared. To make your own, just combine together 10 broken up bay leaves, 2 T of black peppercorns, mustard seed, celery seed, dill seed, and coriander seed. I like to use fresh green heads of dill for my dill pickles and they happen to be ripening just about the time that the cucumbers are starting to come in.

Add pickling spices to the jars
Heads of fresh dill

Canning Jars and Lids – The jars come in quarts and pints and I prefer the wide mouth variety as it is easier to fill with your veggies.  The lids and the bands are in 2 pieces.  You can reuse the band part that tightens the lid but the lid has a sealing compound that closes the jar and can not reused.

Canning Funnel  – This is nice to have but not essential.  The funnel will help the hot cucumber slices of bread and butter pickles to be packed in the jars without mess.

Jar Lifter – Another nice item to have but not essential. It really helps to have this to lift out the jars from the canner with a secure grip.

Labels – I always label my jars so I know what month and year I made them.  I want to use the oldest jars first.

Scale- Use a small kitchen scale to weigh your cucumbers so you can accurately measure the proper amount of ingredients to fill your jars.

Weighing cucumbers

The Process

Clean Everything 

Thoroughly wash the cucumbers, removing any prickles remaining on the outside.  Wash the jars and lids on the hot cycle of the dishwasher and keep the jars in the dishwasher until you are ready to use them so they don’t get dirty.

Fill the Canner

Fill the canner about 2/3 of the way full of water and set it on the stove to heat up about a half hour before you are ready to put the jars in. Fill the canner with more water if you are canning quarts rather than pints.  The water must be at least one inch over the tops of the jars.

Canner with boiling water covering the tops

Prepare the Cucumbers

Slice the blossom ends of your cucumbers off as there is an enzyme there that could prevent the cucumbers from becoming crispy.  For dill pickles, I slice the cucumbers 1/4 inch thick lengthwise, and for the Bread Butter slice them 1/4 inch thick crosswise.

Cucumbers Español: Pepinos Português: Pepinos
Cucumbers Español: Pepinos Português: Pepinos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Filling Jars

When you fill your jars, it is important to not overfill them.  Leave 1/4 inch of room or head space at the top of the jar.  Also, run a small rubber spatula around the inside of the jar after filling to release any trapped air bubbles.

Dill slices ready for the brine

Recipes

Bread and Butter Pickles

This is my favorite pickle recipe that I have successfully used for years with some minor adjustments to the pickle spices.

4 Lbs 4 to 6 inch cucumbers, sliced 1/4 inch thick crosswise

2 Lbs onions, sliced thinly

1/3 C canning salt

2 T mustard seed

2 Tsp turmeric

2 Tsp celery seed

1 Tsp ginger

1 Tsp peppercorns

3 C vinegar

Combine cucumber and onion slices in a large bowl, layering with the cannng salt.  Cover with ice cubes and let stand 1 1/2 hour. Rinse; drain; rinse and drain again to get all salt off. Combine remaining ingredients in a large sauce pot and bring to a boil.  Add drained cucumbers and onions and return to a boil.  Pack hot pickles and liquid into hot jars; leaving 1/4 inch head space.  Remove air bubbles and adjust the two piece caps. Process 10 minutes in a boiling water canner.

Yield : 7 pints

Hamburger Dills

"Dill Pickles" A New Rag. Sheet musi...
“Dill Pickles” A New Rag. Sheet music cover, 1906 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since we love grilling hamburgers, this pickle is perfect to slap on a hamburger sandwich or a cuban.

4 Lbs 4 to 6  inch cucumbers

6 T canning salt

5 C water

4 1/2 C vinegar

8 heads fresh dill (green)

16 cloves of peeled garlic

4 Tsp mixed pickling spice

Wash cucumbers and drain.  Cut cucumbers into lengthwise slices; discarding blossom ends. Combine salt, water, and vinegar in a large sauce pot; bring to a boil. Pack cucumbers and garlic cloves into hot jars, leaving 1/4 inch head space. Add 2 heads of dill and 1 tsp of pickling spice to each jar.  Ladle hot liquid into jars over the cucumbers, leaving 1/4 inch head space.  Remove air bubbles. Adjust two-piece caps. Process 15 minutes in a boiling water canner.

Yield : 4 quarts

English: Entries in the South Australian Dill ...
English: Entries in the South Australian Dill Cucumber Championships at the 2008 Tanunda Show (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Happy Pickling!!!!

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