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

 

Micro Greens-Nutrition-Packed Veggies

A small tub of sunflower microgreens ready to be cut and used
A small tub of sunflower microgreens ready to be cut and used

Have you ever been served a dish in a restaurant which was garnished with colorful and vibrant  greens? Most likely these were microgreens, know for their visual appeal, and crunch. Though minuscule in size, they are concentrated with nutrients. Studies have shown that micro greens are loaded with good stuff, such as vitamins C, E, and K, lutein, and beta-carotene- many times more than the mature leaves of the plant.

I have used disposable containers like milk cartons for microgreens also; on the left is mixed greens, on the right is pea tendrils

Flavorful and providing a textural contrast to a dish like a soup or slab of fish, a few microgreens can go a long way.

Some microgreen pea plants used as a garnish

Not to be confused with sprouts- germinated seeds that are eaten whole, seed, root and shoot, a microgreen is an immature green that is harvested with scissors when the plants are about two inches tall. The stem, cotyledons (or seed leaves) and first set of true leaves are all edible. You are essentially eating seedlings! And the variety of seedlings include herbs and flowers, and vegetables. Most popular are sunflowers, radishes, peas, arugula, basil, beets, kale, and cilantro.

Countertop Gardening

Sunflower, peas, and mixed salad greens
Sunflower, peas, and mixed salad greens ready to be harvested

Pricey to buy in a grocery store and hard to find, microgreens are a snap to grow quickly in a small amount of space. Gather your supplies and you could have a variety of greens growing within a half hour of starting. The harvest time is a mere one to two weeks.

I get my microgreen seeds from Botanical Interests

 

Root Pouches

Root pouches are the way to go for me in growing microgreens.  The Designer Line of Root pouches are made out of porous material that allows the plants to breath, and the containers come in three colors: Navy Blue, Forest Green and Heather Grey. For my microgreens, I used the Joey size at 5″ in diameter and 3″ high.

Root pouches planted and ready to go

Growing bags made out of recycled materials, studies have show that they produce healthy, strong fibrous root systems on plants. Breathable material, the Root Pouch company says on its website: “Root Pouch is a family run business that turns discarded plastic bottles into a versatile, geotextitle material. The Root Pouch fabric planting container keeps plants healthy by letting excess water drain and allowing roots to breathe and grow.” Allowing air to pass through the pot, it promotes a healthy root system.

Pea tendrils ready to harvest

How to Plant

  • Fill pouch or container about 2/3 full of potting medium
  • Press your seeds ( I get mine from Botanical Interests) into top of potting medium
  • Sprinkle top with a light covering of soil
  • Firm soil with fingers, and water with a light spray until saturated
  • Place in a warm place in indirect light
  • Shoots will sprout within a few days
Pea seeds don’t even have to be covered with soil-these are started in milk cartons

Harvesting

Working carefully, taking care not to crush or bruise your tender seedlings, cut the shoots right above the soil line. Begin cleaning by laying a damp paper towel on a tray and placing it near the sink. Give tiny clumps of seedlings a dip in cool (not icy) water, and lay out onto the paper towel.

You can start them in greens containers from the grocery store

Store greens between the paper towels and place in a ziploc plastic bag in the refrigerator. They will last about a week wrapped up this way.

Pea tendrils freshly washed

 

Ultimate Zucchini Bread-Savory & Moist

Flecks of bacon and zucchini show in the bread

Quick breads are old fashioned and retro, but so delicious!  Since I haven’t made one for ages, I was inspired to create some savory loaves when my squash harvest started to take over the refrigerator. Who hasn’t been inundated with dozens of squash when they are at their peak? Even with two or three plants, I can pick half a dozen small ones a day!

Zucchini starting life

Not wanting a cinnamony sugary bread, I searched recipes on-line for some ideas. Cheese…..check, bacon……check, lots of shredded squash…..check, a spicy bite….check, and easy to put together…….check – those were my requirements. But after searching in vain for the perfect recipe, I created my own. The results after making four of these in a week, will stay in my summer repertoire for years to come. The finishing touch was a hint of spice in the bread, delivered by adding shredded fresh Poblano pepper, a mild chili pepper-my favorite. Using only a quarter of the pepper was plenty for me, but if you like spicy, add some more.

Poblanos are mildly hot

Since Zucchini is just my term for summer squash, you can use any in this recipe – yellow, patty pan, green striped, or the classic Zucchini.

Any kind of summer squash works in this recipe

Savory Zucchini Bread

Savory, moist, with green flecks of zucchini throughout; a tiny bit of heat

Prep Time 20 minutes

Ingredients

  • 2 Large Eggs
  • 1 T Sugar
  • 1/2 C Canola Oil
  • 1/2 C Milk
  • 1 1/2 C Flour
  • 1/2 t Baking Soda
  • 1 t Baking Powder
  • 1/2 t Salt
  • 1/4 t Pepper
  • 1 C Shredded Zucchini, 2 small
  • 2-3 T Shredded Poblano Pepper
  • 4 Strips Cooked Bacon, shredded
  • 11/2 C Shredded Parmesan or Cheddar Cheese

Instructions

  1. Add eggs, sugar, and liquid ingredients to a large bowl and mix by hand.

  2. Add flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and pepper and stir until moistened.
  3. Stir in shredded zucchini, poblano, cheese, and bacon.
  4. Pour thick batter into greased loaf pan.
  5. Cook at 350 degrees for 50-55 minutes and let cool for 10 minutes in pan.
  6. Cut into slices and serve warm or at room temperature.

Step by Step

After chunking up your Zucchini, chop in a food processor
Chop up 1/4 of your Poblano pepper and add to the Zucchini

 

Mix your wet ingredients together and then add the dry and mix just until moistened
Stir in the cheese, veggies, and bacon just until incorporated
Pour batter into greased loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees for 55 minutes and enjoy!

This bread slices beautifully and makes great grilled cheese. The flavor is moist and the ‘crumb’ texture is very fine for a batter bread. Freezing the bread is easy by wrapping in foil.

Growing Gourdzilla Champion Pumpkins

Seen at a local nursery
Seen at a local nursery, Valley View Farms

The Growing

Growing titanic orbs or gourds is a competitive cut throat sport. Less than 20 years ago, the heaviest (official) pumpkin weighed a mere 403 pounds. Now in 2016 the one ton mark has been surpassed. That is a lot of pumpkin, not to mention how do you move one that size?? With a fork lift and pickup truck at the very least, so this is not something that any home grower can do without a lot of help.

From Dill's Farm with permission
From Dill’s Farm with permission

But thousands of hopeful growers are hauling their giant squashes into farm and county fairs in search of that coveted blue ribbon for the heaviest pumpkin. Some of the mammoth pumpkins weigh as much as a compact car! The current world-record pumpkin weighed in at 2,323 lb and was grown by Beni Meier of Switzerland in 2014, authenticated by the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth (GPC) in Ludwigsburg, listed on Guinness World Records.

A blue ribbon winner from Dill's Atlantic Giant with peremission
A blue ribbon winner from Dill’s Atlantic Giant with permission

Champion pumpkin growers have their own methods and secrets that they guard closely in hopes of breaking the record books one more time. Because now big cash prizes are attached to those blue ribbons.

Imagine moving something this size!
Imagine moving something this size!

Start Right-Good Genetics

The most important step in growing a champion is getting the right seeds and these aren’t available at just any seed packet display. High pedigree hybrid seeds are necessary which are bought and sold between serious growers, and can cost from $10 to $100 or more per seed. Dill’s Atlantic Giant is the granddaddy of most giant pumpkins, which is  available from Dill’s Farm in Nova Scotia. Dills’ Farm is the home and farm of the late Howard Dill, developer of the “Dill’s Atlantic Giant”, the World’s Largest Pumpkin Variety. Three hundred to 500-pound specimens are routinely grown with this variety, but there is a lot of TLC that goes into the making of a champion.

Dills' Farm even has a Pumpkin Regatta!
Dills’ Farm even has a Pumpkin Regatta! With permission from Dill’s Farm

According to Dill’s Giant Pumpkin website,

DILL’S ATLANTIC GIANT is the grand-daddy of all giant pumpkins. The present day record, for this variety is an amazing 2009 lbs (913 kg) and it is common for the variety to produce 400- 500 pound (180-230 kg) fruit consistently. Used mainly for fall fairs and International pumpkin competitions that are becoming increasingly more popular around the world. Also perfect for huge jack o’lanterns and fall displays! Fruit colours, vary from yellow to orange and the skin is slightly rough. Days to maturity-130.”

Pumpkin in field at Dill's Farm in Nova Scotia, used with permission
Pumpkin in field at Dill’s Farm in Nova Scotia, used with permission

Obtaining the proper seeds is truly the “secret” to growing huge pumpkins and are available at specialty companies and growers such as Dill’s Farm, and on Ebay.

Squash blossom being pollinated by a bee
Pumpkin blossom being pollinated by a bee

Work, Work, and More Work to Produce a Champion

This is an endeavor that starts not in the spring, but in the fall preceding planting your pumpkin. Ground preparation with lots of organic material tilled under begins when the leaves start to turn. Full sun with a minimum of 400 square feet is essential and forget about taking a vacation while the pumpkins are growing, because the plant requires constant tending. This is not simple thing. Among the tasks confronting a serious grower is daily pruning, removing excess pumpkins, pollinating, rotating the gourd, watering, fertilizing, setting up a temporary cold frame over tender plants, soaking and filing the seeds for better germination, applying fungicides and pesticides, and the list goes on and on. Not for the typical sunny day gardener!

There are all types of pumpkins
There are all types of pumpkins

Splitsville, Oh No!

The pumpkin can gain 20 to 40 pounds a day during high summer. And that puts stress on the stem and the biggest calamity of all, splits! Once a fissure or rupture has occurred, the grower might as well hang it up and hope that he has another vine to fall back on. Literally, the grower devotes a whole year of his/her life to this endeavor and the day the pumpkin develops a fatal split, he has to wait until next year to start all over again.

A whale of a pumpkin seen at Valley View Farms
A whale of a pumpkin seen at Valley View Farms

It’s Expensive

You can sink a lot of money into this highly competitive sport – from foliar nutrients, specialized sprinklers, beneficial soil inoculants, miniature cold frames, and other tools to help you grow that record breaker. And once you have a mammoth sitting in your garden, then you have to harvest it and it isn’t just a matter of cutting the stem and bringing the pumpkin into the house. There is a company that markets giant pumpkin lifting rings or slings for “lifting the gold” that can run up to $400. This is not a cheap hobby. However, to buy a ready-made giant can set you back at least $500(see below). My best guess on weight for this is around 900- 1000 pounds. I wonder if they deliver?

I saw this giant pumpkin, weight unknown, at Terrain for $500
I saw this giant pumpkin, weight unknown, at Terrain for $500

Final Reward-Winning a Blue Ribbon

But if you are successful at fighting back the weeds, insects, and splits that can attack at any point, you can enter at one of the many pumpkin contests around the country and take home a prize of thousands of dollars. Considering the many problems  and uncertainties that can strike without warning (think hail storm!), I think I will settle for carving or decorating pumpkins. See my post on embellishing pumpkins at Pumpkin Treats.

Angry Pumpkin
Angry Pumpkin
I will stick to decorating pumpkins
I will stick to decorating pumpkins

 

Little Prince Eggplant

Patio Baby Eggplant
Little Prince Eggplant

I trialed a new eggplant this summer and fell in love with it! Called Little Prince, it produces quantities of glossy three to four inch ovals that are perfect for stir frying or roasting.

Tiny purple eggplant with flower
Tiny purple eggplant with flower

 Little Prince is a very early and highly productive eggplant with a compact habit, making it a great choice for containers or in small gardens. A member of the nightshade family or Solanaceae, a plant family that includes eggplant, peppers, potatoes and tomatoes, the term ‘nightshade‘ may have been coined because some of these plants prefer to grow in shady areas, and some flower at night.

Available at Renees Gardens
Available at Renees Gardens

Deep purple, egg-shaped fruit should be harvested at baby size-3 to 4 inches, and are delicious roasted or in dips and salads.  Thornless leaves and calyxes allow for painless harvesting and makes Little Prince child-friendly, too. Plants will continue to produce fruit throughout the entire season.

The eggplants hang in clusters
The eggplants hang in clusters
There are lots of different types of eggplants to grow
There are lots of different types of eggplants to grow

Still susceptible to flea beetles which can decimate the leaves, older eggplants can sail through this but young plants will usually die from the effects.

Flea Beetles
Flea Beetles

Flea beetles, tiny black  insects that pepper the leaves of eggplants with holes can be a problem. A good control is using yellow or white sticky traps around your eggplants to catch the flea beetles. Give the eggplant a gentle shake- the flea beetles will jump off and land on the sticky paper squares. Place several of these around your eggplant for a good trapping system. Praying Mantis take care of flea beetles on my eggplants. It is interesting to watch these voracious bug eating machines go after them.

Praying Mantis on eggplant
Praying Mantis on eggplant

Some Like It Hot-Tomatoes Do Not!

Every gardener that I talk to in the mid-Atlantic region is singing the same refrain “This has been the worst year for tomatoes that I can remember”. I second that!

A pitiful tomato plant in September
A pitiful tomato plant in September

Heat and humidity has hit us hard with extended periods of over 95 degree weather and the tomatoes are hating it. Climate change? Yes, the last month of July 2016 was the hottest on record according to NOAA dating back to when record keeping started in 1880. The average temperature for the globe was 0.87 degrees Celsius above the 20th century average. Go to State of the Climate from NOAA to see the statistics. There were 15 days of record-breaking heat in July. This is not good news for Tomato Central, the Mid-Atlantic region where I live.

From NOAA
From NOAA

According to Bonnie Plants, “Sizzling summer temperatures can bring your previously productive tomato plants to a screeching halt. When days hit 85°F to 90°F and nights hover above 75°F, tomato flowers often fail to pollinate, then drop — which in turn puts new fruit production on hold. The longer the heat lasts, the longer those tomato flowers will continue to hit the pause button. In short, hot weather can delay your tomato crop”. Tomatoes do not need bees to pollinate. They are wind-pollinated.

Tomatoes are mostly wind pollinated but benefit from insect pollination too
Tomatoes are mostly wind pollinated but benefit from insect pollination too

I am usually canning like crazy and making tomato sauce but that hasn’t happened this summer. I had a few times where I picked a large basket of tomatoes, but nothing like previous years when my kitchen counters are groaning under the weight of ripening tomatoes with my 20+ plants.

I am usually making sauce and canning tomatoes this time of year
I am usually making sauce and canning tomatoes this time of year
Canning up a storm
Canning up a storm

Tomato plants thrive in balmy sunny summer weather, but overly high temperatures stress the plant and slow production. Prolonged temperatures above 95 degrees cause water stress, fruit damage from sun scald and slow ripening. One of the few bright spots were my dwarf tomatoes that seemed to hold up better than the full size ones. I had two dwarfs that sizzled, but four of them did very well. Check out my post on Dwarf Tomatoes. I will be planting more dwarfs next year. Taking much less room and easier to care for, I really enjoyed growing these for the smaller plants but full-sized tomatoes.

Dwarf Mr Snow
Dwarf Mr Snow
Fred's Tie Dye Dwarf Tomato is a beauty
Dwarf Fred’s Tie Dye Tomato is a beauty
I kept a good straw mulch on the ground on my tomatoes; This one is Dwarf Mr Snow which produced like gangbusters
I kept a good straw mulch on the ground on my tomatoes; This one is Dwarf Mr Snow which produced like gangbusters

So, what is a gardener to do?

  1. Plant heat tolerant varieties like Heatmaster, Solar Fire, Summer Set, Florida 91, and Phoenix. These set fruit even when the heat climbs up to code red days.

  2. Mulch, mulch, mulch-This keeps the soil cooler by insulating the ground.

  3. Keep some shade on the tomatoes, especially in the scorching afternoon. Shade cloth covering row cover hoops works well.

  4. Stop fertilizing so the plant is not putting all its strength into new growth when stressed.

  5. Water-Any plant can handle heat better if it is well watered.

  6. Pick early and often. When temps consistently hit the 95-degree range, tomatoes tend to stop producing red pigments, which means typically red fruits may instead ripen to orange. I had this problem. I thought that I made a mistake and planted all orange tomatoes. Fruit left on plants may have some color on the outside, but may still be green inside. Pick any fruit already showing hints of ripe color and allow it to finish ripening indoors.

    This is the stage that I am picking them-showing some color
    This is the stage that I am picking them-showing some color
Tomato diseases hit hard when plants are stressed
Tomato diseases hit hard when plants are stressed

My strategy? I definitely will be on the lookout for the heat tolerant varieties next year. I already mulch and we had plenty of rain and my tomatoes have afternoon shade from a large tree. I am hoping for a cooler summer to continue enjoying my tomato sandwiches.

I want my tomatoes to look like this, nice and ripe
I want my tomatoes to look like this, nice and ripe

But I want to hear from my readers? How have your tomatoes been this year? Please let me know!

From Plot to Plate-Squash Sex in the Garden

P1060535
Oven fried squash blossoms served with a blue cheese dipping sauce

My last post on Squash Birth Control showed you how to decrease your squash harvest. But how about if you want to increase your harvest? Maybe you only have one plant to work with and you want to eat squash every night? It is easy to increase your odds of growing fruit as each squash plant bears male and female flowers and you can use this to your advantage without the help of pollinators. You become the pollinator!

P1060402
An early morning harvest of squash blossoms, mostly male, but a few female ones

Most gardeners look at their squash plant blooming and see tons of flowers and start making plans for all that squash, pulling out recipes for squash bread and zucchini cake. Over the next week, you see with chagrin the blossoms fall off, some with small squash attached and wonder why? In reality, most of the flowers are male flowers and produce no fruit and pollinate the much fewer female flowers.

003
An open female flower and a fertilized one that is starting to grow a squash fruit

Learning to distinguish between male and female flowers on the vine will help you figure out what your true harvest will be. Both male and female flowers occur on each plant and pollen from the male flowers has to make it to the female by way of insects or hand pollination. This is where the gardener can lend a helping hand.

The video below shows a snapshot of morning activity of flying insects in my squash blossoms. I have three hives so there is always lots of visiting bees to my flowers. But everyone doesn’t maintain bee hives and you can increase your odds of your squash flowers getting pollinated even in an urban situation by simply hand pollinating.

P1060511
Here you can see the difference: The female flower on the left with the enlarged center, the pistil, and the male flower on the right which carries all the pollen grains

The first week or two it is normal for the blossoms to fall off as only male flowers are produced and then the female flowers start opening. For pollination to occur you need bees- native, bumble, or honey bees and other insects, or a handy Q-tip!  If there is a dearth of bees, pollination is a lot less likely to occur, but not to worry- this is very easy to do yourself.

P1060531
Removing all the flower petals from the male flower, touch the pollen bearing anther to the stigma of the female flower

Simply take the petals off of a male flower and use the ‘brush’  or exposed anther and brush it against the stigma of the female flower thus transferring the pollen manually and ensuring that the female flower grows a fruit. You can also perform this with a Q-Tip very easily in the vegetable plot. I prefer to fertilize directly with the male flower and go to each female flower that I see, brushing the anther against the stigma of the female flower. Fertilization is necessary for fruit formation. If fertilization does not occur, the ovary  or little squash will wither away. The squash flower below on the right has successfully been fertilized and is starting to grow.

P1060526
On the bottom left is the male flower; top middle is a female flower; bottom right is a female flower that has closed up, pollination has occurred and the squash fruit is starting to grow

Male flowers greatly out number female ones and I take advantage of this and pick baskets of male flowers for recipes. Of course to cut your harvest, simply remove the fewer female flowers which can also be used in recipes. Just remember to cut off the center part, the stigma bearing part, as this can be tough. For recipes, check out Squash Birth Control-Squash Blossom Recipes.

P1060393
A bee and a cucumber beetle in a squash blossom

Here is one of my favorite recipes-Oven Fried Stuffed Squash Blossoms. Instead of messy deep-frying, I like to cook them at a high temperature in the oven. Serve with a dipping sauce, like a blue cheese mix.

P1060494
Baked stuffed squash blossoms ready to eat

recipeee

 

P1060482
Mix all your ingredients in a bowl
P1060487
Stuff cheese into blossom
P1060489
Blossoms all stuffed,ends twisted, ready for breading
P1060491
Breaded and ready to pop into the oven

Gourdzilla!! Growing Champion Pumpkins

Seen at a local nursery
Seen at a local nursery

The Growing

Growing titanic orbs or gourds is a competitive cut throat sport. As recently as 16 years ago, the heaviest (official) pumpkin weighed a mere 403 pounds. Now in 2015 the one ton mark has been surpassed. That is a lot of pumpkin, not to mention how do you move one that size?? With a fork lift and pickup truck at the very least, so this is not something that any home grower can do. Champion pumpkin growers have their own methods and secrets that they guard closely in hopes of breaking the record books one more time.

Imagine moving something this size!
Imagine moving something this size!

Start Right-Good Genetics

The most important step in growing a champion is getting the right seeds and these aren’t available at any nursery. Refining the genetic makeup for years, dedicated and obsessed growers have developed more superior strains than are available at the local nursery on their seed packet displays. Atlantic Giant is a variety that is available from Botanical Interests but if you search the web you can find all kinds.

Atlantic Giant Pumpkin is a huge variety that most people start with
Atlantic Giant Pumpkin is a huge variety that most people start with

According to Dill’s Giant Pumpkin website,

DILL’S ATLANTIC GIANT is the grand-daddy of all giant pumpkins. The present day record, for this variety is an amazing 2009 lbs (913 kg) and it is common for the variety to produce 400- 500 pound (180-230 kg) fruit consistently. Used mainly for fall fairs and International pumpkin competitions that are becoming increasingly more popular around the world. Also perfect for huge jack o’lanterns and fall displays! Fruit colours, vary from yellow to orange and the skin is slightly rough. Days to maturity-130.”

 

Obtaining the proper seeds is truly the “secret” to growing huge pumpkins and are available at specialty companies and growers, and on Ebay.

Squash blossom being pollinated by a bee
Squash blossom being pollinated by a bee

Work, Work, and More Work to Produce a Champion

Ground preparation with lots of organic material tilled under begins in the fall. Full sun with a minimum of 400 square feet is required and forget about taking a vacation while the pumpkins are growing, because the plant requires constant tending. Among the tasks confronting a serious grower is daily pruning, removing excess pumpkins, pollinating, rotating the gourd, watering, fertilizing, setting up a temporary cold frame over tender plants, soaking and filing the seeds for better germination, applying fungicides and pesticides, and the list goes on and on. Not for the typical sunny day gardener!

Pumpkin blossoms are large

Splitsville, Oh No!

The pumpkin can gain 20 to 40 pounds a day during high summer. And that puts stress on the stem and the biggest calamity of all, splits! Once a fissure or rupture has occurred, the grower might as well hang it up and hope that he has another vine to fall back on. Literally, the grower devotes a whole year of his/her life to this endeavor and one day if the pumpkin develops a fatal split, he has to wait until next year to start all over again.

A whale of a pumpkin seen at Valley View Farms
A whale of a pumpkin seen at Valley View Farms

It’s Expensive

You can sink a lot of money into this highly competitive endeavor – from foliar nutrients, specialized sprinklers, beneficial soil inoculants, miniature cold frames, and other tools to help you grow that record breaker. And once you have a mammoth sitting in your garden, then you have to harvest it and it isn’t just a matter of cutting the stem and bringing the pumpkin into the house. There is a company that markets giant pumpkin lifting rings or slings for “lifting the gold” that can run up to $400. This is not a cheap hobby. But on the other hand, to buy a ready made giant can set you back at least $500(see below). My best guess on weight for this is around 900- 1000 pounds. I wonder if they deliver?

I saw this giant pumpkin, weight unknown, at Terrain for $500
I saw this giant pumpkin, weight unknown, at Terrain for $500

Final Reward-Winning a Blue Ribbon

But if you are successful at fighting back the weeds, insects, and splits that can attack at any point, you can enter at one of the many pumpkin contests around the country and take home a prize of thousands of dollars. Considering the many problems  and uncertainties that can strike without warning (think hail storm!), I think I will settle for carving or decorating pumpkins. See my post on embellishing pumpkins this at Pumpkin Treats.

I will stick to decorating pumpkins
I will stick to decorating pumpkins

 

Pushing the Tomato Envelope-New and Exciting Varieties

Brad Gates in his extensive greenhouses
Brad Gates in his extensive greenhouses

Tomato Beauty

It seems like more growers and consumers are demanding flavorful, organically grown, as well as healthy and beautiful vegetables. Plate appeal is paramount with fine restaurants, but increasingly, home growers are finding that this attribute is just as important as nutrient value and ease of growing. Perusing the seed catalogs this winter, I came across Wild Boar Farms, whose mantra is “changing the world one tomato at a time”. Owned by Brad Gates, Wild Boar Farms is located in Napa Valley, St. Helena, California. Gates is passionate about tomato growing and to listen to him talk about them, it almost sounds like a vintner discussing relative merits of different wines. Watch him explain how he grows his tomatoes.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wE2eB2o5lL0

Gates has grown tomatoes in California for at least a dozen years, and started his love affair with tomatoes when he worked at a farmers market for a friend. That experience showed him what people were looking for in a tomato.

Rows and rows of tomatoes at Wild Boar Farms
Rows and rows of tomatoes at Wild Boar Farms

Taste Test

Reading the descriptions of his tomato varieties, you see phrases like – port wine color with metallic silver green stripes (Pink Boar), or a hint of tropical fruit (AAA Sweet Solano), warning, high acid content may cause flashbacks! (Berkeley Tie Dye), and dark, earth tones of rich tomato (Black and Brown Boar). Sounds like a wine tasting description, doesn’t it? Maybe growing these tomatoes in the wine country of Napa Valley has something to do with the similarities to wine making jargon!

A beautiful palette of tomatoes from Wild Boar Farms
A beautiful palette of tomatoes from Wild Boar Farms

Stripes Are King

Wild Boar Farms claims to offer some of the “most outrageous tomato varieties on the planet”. On the cutting edge of developing new tomato varieties using heirloom genetics and mutations as a foundation, Gates then improves on that to produce some remarkable tomatoes. The parentage of many of his new varieties are Zebra tomatoes and his focus is on bi-color and striped varieties – not your grandma’s tomatoes!!  

Berkeley Tie Dye Tomato is a favorite of restaurant chefs for its beauty
Berkeley Tie Dye Tomato is a favorite of restaurant chefs for its beauty
Sweet Carneros Pink Tomato
Sweet Carneros Pink Tomato

Since Gates specializes in growing thousands of tomatoes every season, he has some good pointers for improving your harvest. The way he describes taking care of his plants is kind of like how a parent takes care of his children. He says be “nice” early on before they set fruit, caring for them with lots of compost, and plenty of water.  Later when the tomatoes set fruit, let up on the watering as heirlooms have a thin delicate skin, which with too much rain or water can crack. Kind of like children, nurture them when young, and then set them free!

Culture Tips

 

  • Plant cover crops in winter to amend soil when tilled under

  • Water tomato plants frequently when young until rooted in

  • Taper off watering to every 3 weeks once established, so that roots push deep into the soil for a stronger plant

  • Prune lower suckers off so that the plant forces energy into fruit production

One of Brad's many striped tomato varieties
One of Brad’s many striped tomato varieties

Flavor Notes

As to appearances and flavor, Gates likes to have three to four colors at a single sitting for the most flavor. Each expressed color produces different vitamins and minerals that add to the total tomato package. Light ones like yellows and oranges, he describes as tropical or fruity, dark ones as earthy notes.

There is an annual National Heirloom Expo held in Santa Rosa California every September, sponsored by Baker Creek Heirloom Seed, and Brad Gates showcases his tomato varieties there. This festival is on my bucket list to visit.  Baker Creek carries Gates’s heirloom seeds and I ordered a couple to try this year. Go to my post Art of the Seed to get more information about this company.

Blue Black Tomatoes-“Indigo”

Indigo Apple tomatoes on the vine almost ready to pick

Indigo Apple Tomato available from Wild Boar Farms
Indigo Apple Tomato available from Wild Boar Farms

I am trying Indigo Apple from Baker Creek, which is one of Gates’s introductions, described in the catalog as ” Immature fruits show deep purple, almost black coloration, which is caused by high anthocyanin (an anti-oxidant). The 2- to 4-ounce, cherry-type fruit turn red when ripe, have a good, complex yet sweet tomato flavor. A descendant of the famed OSU Blue Fruit tomato. The pendant clusters of immature black fruit present a striking appearance in the garden! Resists sun-scald and cracking, lasting long into cool autumn weather when others have quit. Shows disease tolerance and great shelf-life. A classic is born!”

Anthocyanin is also the blue pigment found in blueberries,  purported to have many healthy benefits. Indigo Apple is supposed to be an improvement on Indigo Rose in the taste department, and I can attest that it is a tasty tomato – more like a sweet Early Girl instead of a large Beefsteak. Indigo Apple is a cross between Indigo Rose and a cherry tomato and is very resistant to sunscald with that black coloration. I noticed that it lasts a long time on my counter. When other tomatoes are rotting and splitting, Indigo Apple stays firm.

As to nutrient content, the blue-black or darker tomatoes beat out all other varieties. Go to http://www.wildboarfarms.com/downloads/2013-Tomato-Nutrition.pdf to see the rundown of tomato nutrients. I am trying Black Krim, which is a Russian Heirloom, and Indigo Apple which tops the charts  with high levels of lycopene. You can order tomato seeds directly from Wild Boar Farms also.

Top 12 Garden Trends for 2014

An array of catalogs
An array of catalogs

What’s Brewing in the Garden

I don’t need to read tea leaves or get out my crystal ball to figure out what is trending in the horticulture world, just a glossy stack of 2014 seed catalogs cascading off my bookshelf. While the wind is howling and there is talk of polar vortex, I brew up a cup of hot tea, gather my reading material, and snuggle in. Here is a lowdown on what is new, what is hot, and what people are really thinking about when they plan ahead, and order their seeds for the upcoming growing season.

1. Grafted Vegetable Plants

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

Grafted plants are relatively new, but I have only seen grafted tomato plants. A grafted plant simply means the top part of a separate plant(scion) is attached to the root system of another plant(the rootstock). The rootstock contributes vigor and disease resistance while the scion is chosen for flavor and quality. To see my review of grafted tomatoes go to Grafted Tomatoes, What’s Next?

Ann array of grated plants seen at the recent Mid-Atlantic Nurserymans Show in Baltimore
Ann array of grafted plants seen at the recent Mid-Atlantic Nurserymans Show in Baltimore

Now, you can choose from grafted double tomatoes (2 varieties on one plant), cucumber, peppers, watermelon, and eggplants, which are available from Territorial Seed Company. Another new development that is top-secret(you heard it from me!!) is the tomato plant that grows potatoes. That’s right- The plant grows tomatoes on top and potatoes underneath. Weird is right, but it makes perfect sense. The name that is being batted around for this oddity is “ketchup and fries”! Look for this in 2015.

2. Not Using GMO Seeds

Genetically Modified seeds are a no no. Virtually every catalog assured the grower that they renounced the very idea of selling them! For example from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange “we pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants”. Consequently, heirlooms, which are open pollinated, are huge! Also prevalent are organic seeds. Heirlooms and organics dominate the catalogs, and some seed companies such as Landreth Seeds, sell them exclusively. Several companies such as Sow True Seed state that they are signatories to the Safe Seed Pledge, put out by the Council for Responsible Genetics. I see this as a sign that consumers have lost their faith in big agro-businesses and want to go back to basics and something simpler.

3. Planting Raised, Stackable Beds, and Container Bags 

Stackable planters from Territorial Seeds
Stackable planters from Territorial Seeds

Raised beds and stackables are everywhere. Sow True Seed’s sells bag beds, smart pots, elevated garden planters, and a raised bed garden system. The stackables are new; think of wooden crates with a fiberglass screen bottom with cedar supports to contain soil. You can stack one on top of each other, or interlock in a customized configuration to fit your space.

Another option are the big bag beds which are soft sided containers, some as wide as 50 inches to grow edibles and flowers. The one pictured below, located on my patio in winter, is a favorite of mine. It won’t crack in winter like pottery would, and the sides are breathable for good air access. They are supposed to last about 7 years.

Big Bag Bed
Big Bag Bed

4. Bee Gardening

Save the Bees Seeds
Save the Bees Seeds

Bees have been in the news for the past couple of years and people are concerned about their disappearance, wanting to do something about it. The easiest solution is to plant a bee-friendly garden, using native plants. Native plants continue to be a hot topic in gardening worlds.

Botanical Interests, is selling “Save the Bees” seeds which includes annuals, biennials and perennials.  They claim that, “The variety of colorful blooms in this mix provides plentiful food for many of the over 4000 species of bees that live in the U.S., and are waiting to visit your garden!” for $4.99.

If a variety is the least bit attractive to bees, the seed or plant company will trumpet those benefits, even when some are questionable.

To take it a step further, mason bee houses are popping up for the first time in main stream seed catalogs, and you can even buy the  larvae cocoons on line if you want to jump start your local population.

5. Planting for Health Benefits/Foraging

Heirloom Tomatoes
Heirloom Tomatoes

When I was ordering my tomato seeds, I noticed in the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog, that they had a chart titled “Our 2013 Nutritional Study on Tomatoes”. The chart rated 10 tomato varieties in order according to their nutrient values as was performed by a certified lab in California. I was surprised to see the wide differences between the varieties in levels of vitamins, acidity, and lycopene (flavonoid antioxidant). Generally the black and purple tomatoes surpass significantly all other color tomatoes. That is why I ordered the variety “Black Krim” which topped the list as best overall. I was following a trend which I see is in full swing, gardening for nutritional benefits as well as tasting good.

Black Krim tomato
Black Krim tomato

People are looking at health benefits when cultivating all edibles and growing lots of greens for smoothies or “groothies”. Kale is ubiquitous.

Foraging for edibles is an off-shoot of this interest with a ground swell locavore movement. Driving this movement is self-sufficiency, getting in touch with nature, free food, and seasonal eating. Eat your dandelions!

6. Herbs-Medicinal and Culinary

Lavender Phenomenal
Lavender Phenomenal

People are making their lifestyle choices with wellness in mind. Bergamot, chamomile, and comfrey are three herbs that are leading this trend of healthy choices and habits. Easy to grow in containers, windowsills, and just about anywhere – herbs, both medicinal and culinary are the next hot edible.

The herb section in all my catalogs has grown over the years. From Park Seed you can buy a pollinator herb mixture of borage, chives, sage, basil, lemon mint, catnip, sweet marjoram, oregano, and creeping thyme. Varieties of herbs have exploded and the hybridizers have been busy, especially with Lavenders. Phenomenal Lavender is a new variety which has been trumpeted, that will thrive in hot humid summers, which I endure here in the mid-Atlantic. I grew this variety for the first time last year and liked it because the flowers branched off the main stem to produce more flowers all summer long. The jury is still out until I see how it over-winters.

7. Growing Exotic and Unusual Vegetables

Dinosaur Kale
Dinosaur Kale

Remember earlier, I said back to basics? Well, forget that!! Because I definitely see a trend to growing unique and gourmet vegetables that are nutritious as well as easy to grow. Just check out Park Seed‘s gourmet edibles which include Kale Lacinato(Dinosaur Kale), Cucumber Crystal White Pickler, Rainbow Blend Tomato, Chiogga Beet, Pepper Petite Color Blend, and Brussels Sprouts Bitesize. I attempted to order Dinosaur Kale from several companies, but it was sold out wherever I tried! I will be growing these black tomatoes that I saw in Quebec last summer. Because of their black color, supposedly the nutrient content of these should be off the charts.

Black Tomatoes
Black Tomatoes

8. Themed Seed Samplers

Renee’s Garden Seeds increases their themed seed collections every year, such as the Basil Lovers Bonanza, Fabulous and Unusual Annuals, or Collection of Collections, which is all twelve of the themed garden seeds together for $155! Landreth Seeds has the most unique collections, with one called the African American Heritage Collection. See my review of Landreth Seeds at Art of the Seed. Botanical Interests has over 30 collections and has pulled out all the stops in naming them. I am going to try “Salsa Ole Seed Collection”, and the “Weird and Wonderful Seed Collection”. The collections at Botanical Interests can only be purchased on line.

9. Growing Small/Rooftops

Rooftop garden in Quebec
Rooftop garden in Quebec

Rooftop gardening for vegetables by definition should be small and compact. The adjectives used in describing these plants are mini, tiny, dwarf, and compact. Vegetables and flowers are being downsized to fit into peoples lifestyles and space limitations, and are sprouting up on rooftops all over America. Determinate plants are popular as they do not vine and outgrow their space, and the smaller varieties have exploded in number. Container sized blueberries and raspberries are selling out everywhere as they are so easy to grow. See my Blueberry Bonanza post. Berries in general are enjoying a resurgence of popularity. Ever-bearing strawberries, ones that produce sporadically throughout the growing season, are very popular. For my post on strawberries, go to Jam Session.

Garden Sox container with a bearing strawberry
Garden Sox container with a bearing strawberry

10. Growing “Super Foods

Goji Berries
Goji Berries

This trend is an off-shoot of growing food for health benefits, but primarily so-called super foods such as berries, kiwis, quinoa, beets, and greens, fall into this category. Goji Berries are still trendy, and blueberries are being hybridized into unrecognizable colors, such as lemonade pink or peach sorbet.

A newly released berry from Proven Winners is called Sugar Mountain Blue Haskap. Sugar Mountain is a honeysuckle variety or Lonicera, but not the invasive kind. Haskaps look like elongated, oversized blueberries that growers claim is easier to grow than blueberries. They also contain high levels of antioxidants and three times the amount of vitamin C.  Haskaps can be eaten fresh or dried, or cooked into pies, just like blueberries. For a post on another superfood, Okra, go to Okra-Superfood Superstar.

Blue Haskap berry
Blue Haskap berry

 11. Fermentation

Fermentation is huge! Enjoying a resurgence are plants that can be fermented such as hops for beer, grapes for wine, cabbage for kimchi,  kombucha, and relishes. Go to Pickle Time to see how easy it is to make pickles. Beer gardens are becoming popular, with people growing different varieties of hops to try their hand at brewing.  If you are interested in kombucha, which is a fermented tea, and new to me, go to  http://www.foodrenegade.com/how-to-brew-kombucha-double-fermentation-method/.

Mixing unique cocktails with different hand-made liquors like Elderflower or infusing vodkas with fruit is hitting the scene. Plants and liquor-a marriage made in heaven! Read The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart for recipes and inspiration

Drunken Botanist
Drunken Botanist

12. Sprouts & Micro Greens

Do you notice a trend here? Edibles aren’t new on the gardening scene, they are just taking over the gardening world. Sprouting set-ups are “sprouting” all over and every time you walk into a gardening supply store, you are knocking into one.

Sprouting seeds and microgreens from Botanical Interests
Sprouting seeds and microgreens from Botanical Interests

Micro greens are an “offshoot” of the sprouting scene and you have probably seen them on restaurant menus, garnishing sandwiches, salads and soups. Micro greens are juvenile vegetable seedlings that are between 7 and 14 days old that grow in soil. Sprouts are seeds that germinate in water and are about 48 hours old. Micro greens are harvested by cutting the plant off at the soil level. Arugula, mustard, pea, beets, cilantro are some micro greens now on the market with more to come. The nutrients contained in micro greens are four to six times more intense than the mature vegetable.

Rain barrel with edibles
Rain barrel with edibles

I am sure that you noticed that of the above movements, most of the options involved vegetable or edible gardening.  As a consequence, when vegetable gardeners speak, the gardening industry listens!

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