Growing Edibles: Keep it Simple for Success

As you plan for 2016 gardening and home budgets, you might be considering growing edibles on your patio, in your backyard or as part of a community garden. If you feel daunted by the prospect of first-time-gardening or expansion, keep it simple.

Locally grown food typically is better for you and more sustainable, whether you get the food from your own garden or a local community-supported agriculture (CSA) or Farmers’ Market. You can turn your kids on to healthier food choices when they become involved in growing and harvesting the food.

kitchen garden food
There’s nothing fresher than food from your own yard or a local grower. We harvested all of this in one morning.

Grocery store produce travels an average of 1,300 miles from farm to store shelf. I don’t see how it could possible be fresher, more nutritious or more sustainable than produce that travels 10 yards from your garden to your kitchen. It’s easy to grow your own food; here are five ways to keep your edible garden simple, fun and effective.

Our green beans have much more flavor and snap than grocery store beans.
Our green beans have much more flavor and snap than grocery store beans.

Be selective. If you’re a seasoned gardener or a foodie, it’s tempting to grow nearly every herb or vegetable that you typically buy. But unless you’re expanding last year’s garden or have lots of help and land, grow a few selected plants, at least the first year. The best way to decide which food to grow? Start with favorites for your family; you can even let every family member choose one vegetable he or she loves the most. That helps ease waste and makes it more fun. Other considerations are climate and growing season, and what’s available (or in our case, unavailable), fresh and affordable at local stores. Leave it to local farmers to supplement your stash by learning what’s typically available at stands and Farmers’ Markets.

You can grow one or two tomato plants in large containers on your patio. This pot includes some marigold and basil. It provided excellent cocktail tomatoes.
You can grow one or two tomato plants in large containers on your patio. This pot includes some marigold and basil. It provided excellent cocktail tomatoes.

Start seeds or buy plants. Starting seeds is less expensive, or at least the seeds themselves cost less than plants. But if this is your first foray into a kitchen garden, be sure to consider the costs of raising healthy seedlings. You’ll need containers, potting material, and possibly heat mats and grow lights. Of course, you can start some plants directly in the ground or container once it warms up, so practice on one that’s easy to grow or fits well into your growing season length. Maybe it’s easier to buy starter plants (and support local nurseries) instead of growing indoor seedlings. Expand into seed starting next year once you learn and have success.

grow lights on seedlings
Seeds need warmth and light to grow. You can repurpose or recycle containers, but you’ll likely need grow lights and heat mats. Photo courtesy of the National Garden Bureau.

Check production to avoid waste. Although yields from plants can vary according to variety, zone and how the weather cooperates each year, you can estimate how many tomatoes you’ll likely harvest, for instance. Cautious people like me tend to overplant, worrying that one of the seedlings won’t make it and I’ll have too few of a selection. Be realistic and thin seedlings to control the yield. Seed catalogs are excellent sources of average yield, and this checklist from Bonnie Plants is a terrific start. And a caution: zucchini is easy to grow, and 7 to 10 pounds doesn’t sound like a lot of zucchini. But it is.

Were trying yellow summer squash this year instead of zucchini. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer.com
Were trying summer squash this year instead of zucchini. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer.com

Keep sustainability in mind. Choosing the food you and your family like the best and keeping quantity down avoids waste of water, time and other resources. By growing only what you need, you supplement what’s commercially available and waste little. Using organic practices and spending as much time with your plants as possible can keep the plants healthy. This means preparing containers and gardens with plenty of organic matter and watering regularly and deeply. Healthy plants are less susceptible to disease and insects. But if a plant has problems, don’t blame yourself or throw in the towel. You only have so much control as a gardener. Get help from a friend, local master gardeners or extension agents.

Carrots need organic matter to help provide nutrition and drainage. We had great success with growing them in this trough.
Carrots need organic matter to help provide nutrition and drainage. We had great success growing them in this trough.

Share your bounty. Once you begin to harvest, if you have too much of any food, try not to waste it. Each discarded zucchini tosses up to gallons of water used to grow the plant, as well as your time and effort. One choice is to preserve extra produce if you have time and materials to do so. The only way kitchen gardening and local farming can remain sustainable is if gardeners can avoid waste. Have a plan in place to share with an eager friend or neighbor or donate extra produce to a local food pantry. Then adjust your plan for next year if you had excessive yields.

When life gives you cucumbers, make pickles!
When life gives you cucumbers, make pickles!

Finally, start small if you’ve never gardened. Choose one herb and vegetable that you can grow in a container or in an empty spot in your landscape. And spend some time volunteering at a coop farm or with a friend who has more experience so you can learn more about growing your own food.

Grape tomatoes grow among cosmos, or the other way around. And notice the bee!
Grape tomatoes grow among cosmos, or the other way around. And notice the bee!

Most of all, have fun and enjoy the experience. There are no perfect gardeners or perfect gardens. Everyone learns by trial and error. The joy comes when you bite into the rewards of your efforts!

Save Water by Growing Food: How to Add Edibles to a Low-water Garden

Growing edibles can be a smart xeric strategy, especially for anyone looking to begin a garden or use less water in the lawn and garden. Many edibles are attractive and some are evergreen. If you live in an arid zone, applying more water to edibles than to ornamental plants is the right thing to do. Here are a few strategies for making your lawn and garden attractive while saving water and helping to feed your family.

container edibles
Tomato and rosemary make gorgeous edible container plants, especially interspersed with herbs and flowering plants.

Grow perennial herbs and vegetables

Luckily, several delicious and useful perennial herbs require little water. My favorites are rosemary, sage, lavender and thyme. All of these plants thrive in our xeric garden at zone 6B, and many are hardy to even colder temperatures. Providing well-drained soil helps these herbs survive; some of the only diseases that attack them are related to prolonged wet roots or poor air circulation around wet leaves. Other useful perennial herbs for the xeric garden include bee balm, yarrow and oregano.

Lavender is one of the prettiest xeric herbs. Use it in recipes, to make gifts, or to attract pollinators to your garden.
Lavender is one of the prettiest xeric herbs. Use it in recipes, to make gifts, or to attract pollinators to your garden.

Once you’ve mastered a successful season growing food, consider a perennial vegetable such as asparagus. One plant can survive for more than a decade. Growing asparagus requires some patience until the plant produces and a commitment, but harvesting fresh asparagus for several years would be worth it. Although the vegetable requires more water than some for the first few years, you’re likely to use less water over the life of the plant than you would by planting a crop of zucchini or other vegetable year after year. Asparagus is hardy in zones 3 to 8. Some spears showed up along our ditch bank last year. They were leggy, but the plants have survived several winters with no irrigation or other effort on part, since we didn’t know about them. Here’s an article from Gardener’s Supply Company on how to grow asparagus.

This apricot looks beautiful all year long and shades parts of the house, patio and garden, even though frost has kept it from producing fruit for a few years.
This apricot looks beautiful all year long and shades parts of the house, patio and garden, even though frost has kept it from producing fruit for a few years.

Shade with trees that produce food

Shade is a must for lawns in hot, dry climates. If you’re going to plant a shade tree, why not choose one that produces food? I believe that fruit trees get a bad rap as being “messy.” It takes less time to harvest from the trees or pick up dropped fruit every few days than it takes some of us to make a grocery trip! Enjoy the shade of an apricot or apple tree and delicious, fresh fruit in summer, depending on the year’s frost. Fruit trees also have beautiful spring color and attract pollinators. Some nut trees thrive in warm climates.

We had to climb ladders and compete with birds for our tart cherries this summer, but they were worth it.
We had to climb ladders and compete with birds for our tart cherries this summer, but they were worth it.

Dwarf fruit trees provide less shade, but use less water and space and produce a more reasonable amount of fruit. Busy working parents likely will appreciate that dwarf fruit trees entail less work than full-sized ones in an abundant year. Dwarf trees require less climbing and pruning, and often produce fruit earlier than their larger counterparts. A single dwarf tree that requires no companion for pollination can add a little shade, color and interest to a xeric lawn or garden. Just be sure to choose a variety hardy for your zone. Many dwarf pears, plums and apples are hardy to zone 5; Stark Bro’s helps you choose a dwarf variety based on your zone. Mulching around the tree can reduce water needs.

Use shade for other edibles

Trees provide shade for people and plants. Take advantage of shade to grow edible crops under trees, shrubs or other vegetables. Many herbs and vegetables tolerate partial shade or grow best during cooler weather. Planting basil where it gets afternoon shade can help the plant thrive and use less water. Just be sure to estimate where the shade will be come the height of summer, not where it is when you plant.

These containers grew short-season tomatoes, basil and marigolds. We could move them to adjust to shade, then back into more sun as late summer shadows shifted.
These containers grew short-season tomatoes, basil and marigolds. We could move them to adjust to shade, then back into more sun as late summer shadows shifted.

Planting edibles in containers is a smart water choice and can give the gardener more flexibility in controlling sun exposure. I planted several tomatoes in containers and moved the pots slightly as summer became hotter, giving them plenty of sun, but afternoon shade on our patio. Of course, you need a properly sized container for the plant you choose. Grape and cherry tomatoes need a little less space than full-sized varieties. You can place containers in the shade of trees, right in the garden, to complement your garden’s design.

Choose cool-season crops

Providing shade extends the season of crops that grow better in cooler temperatures. Choosing some cool-season crops also can save water because these edibles produce in early spring or late fall, using less water than those grown in hot summer sun. We’ve used shade to grow lettuce mixes and spinach. Again, using containers for these crops allows you to easily move the container when summer sun or drought stress the plants. And containers help you grow edibles close to your kitchen for more months of the year.

spinach in metal container
Lettuce and spinach prefer cooler temperatures; our apricot provided afternoon shade for a spinach container.

Although you might not think you’re saving water when soaking tomatoes, consider the amount of water that goes into tomatoes you buy at the store, along with the energy used to transport them. Most of all, take a bite of a tomato right from the vine and you’ll quickly lose your taste for any store-bought fruit.

Tomatoes, green beans and cucumbers fresh from our kitchen garden.
Tomatoes, green beans and cucumbers fresh from our kitchen garden.

Our Garden is Hard at Work This Winter

Winter is tough for gardeners who live in zones with shorter growing seasons. In New Mexico, we can typically get outside in winter to work on between-season chores because we usually have dry, sunny conditions. Not so much this year. We’ve had unusual cold, wind and now about 18 to 20 inches of snow.

Our latest snow covered many xeric plants in the garden and keeps wildlife from eating grass and insects on the ground.
Winter storm Goliath dumped at least 18 inches of snow that covered many xeric plants in the garden and keeps wildlife from eating grass and insects on the ground.

Even with snow and cold, there are a few things gardeners can do in winter to satisfy their outdoor cravings and grow a bit of their own food. And our gardens certainly don’t rest all winter; with a little help, the soil rebuilds to nourish next year’s plants. Dormant or dried plants feed wildlife while their food is scarce.

Extend the season with row cover

Like I said, most winters are relatively mild in New Mexico. Although nights in the high desert cool considerably, the days can warm up to at least 50 degrees F. I covered an existing carrot trough to keep the carrots from freezing; they keep much better in the ground than anywhere I can store them once harvested. If you live in zone 8 or warmer, you can grow carrots in winter. We’re trying a new crop and storage/preservation of an established crop in our trough planter.

These carrots were planted in late summer and we're still harvesting after Christmas.
These carrots were planted in late summer and we’re still harvesting after Christmas.

We constructed a small hoop house with row cover cloth to extend the season for early spring or late fall. We spread our carrot, lettuce and spinach seeds inside the hoop tunnel in fall and had a really good germination rate. The carrots are growing slowly, however, and I hope to plant them a little earlier next year. Then again, I also hope for a warmer winter.

We got hoops and row cover cloth from Johnny's Seeds. I've harvested spinach and lettuce. The carrots are growing slowly, but hanging in there.
We got hoops and row cover cloth from Johnny’s Seeds. I’ve harvested spinach and lettuce. The carrots are growing slowly, but hanging in there.
Considering this winter has brought many nights below 20 degrees F, the covered hoop house appears to be working.
Considering this winter has brought many nights below 20 degrees F, the covered hoop house appears to be working.

Prepare the vegetable garden for spring

Before the snow came, we got outside a few times to at least prep our vegetable and herb gardens for next spring. We didn’t have a chance to plant cover crops, and that’s on our list as a strategy for next year in part of the garden. But we want our gardens to rebuild important soil nutrients, so we pulled up some of the frost-bitten plants. Any that looked unhealthy went into a weed pile, but we added much of the material to our compost bin, and left some in the garden. We chopped up the healthy plant material left in garden rows to help it break down faster.

A friend introduced us to mushroom compost, and it's our favorite choice for amending soil and fertilizing grass.
Although we would prefer to buy fresh compost in bulk, there are no certified compost sources nearby. We have to buy these bags in Albuquerque and transport them down. Mushroom compost is our organic matter of choice for building beds and fertilizing grass.

Although we compost, we don’t generate enough to cover our entire vegetable garden, so we purchased mushroom compost, our favorite organic matter. We busted up compacted dirt and built the beds up so they’re slightly raised. Next, we used a small cultivator to work the compost into the top few inches. It’s not the same as tilling, which turns up deeper soil and weed seeds. We’d love to cover the beds with leaves or other mulch, but the wind rules that out. So we used plastic or black fabric cloth on hand. The purpose is mostly to keep weed seeds from blowing onto our clean beds and taking root. In spring, we’ll add a little more compost and mix the soil lightly a few weeks before planting.

Tim works the mushroom compost gently into a row.
Tim works the mushroom compost gently into a row.
We ran out of plastic, which we prefer so that sun reaches the soil. So we used black landscape fabric on one bed. We'll see how they compare in the spring.
We ran out of plastic, which we prefer so that sun reaches the soil. So we used black landscape fabric on one bed. We’ll see how they compare in the spring.

Leave some plant material for wildlife

Schools of thought about fall garden clean-up differ. On the one hand, the more leaves and other plant material you leave on the ground, the higher your chance of insects and weeds using your garden as their winter home. And I agree in many ways with that school of thought. We didn’t want the mess of dried annuals everywhere, and I wouldn’t want a giant pile of leaves up against areas of the garden or house.

Our garden and landscape are partially wild in winter, just enough to help feed wild turkeys!
Our garden and landscape are partially wild in winter, just enough to help feed wild turkeys!

Leaving leaves on grass as mulch for the winter is a great idea, but only if you have a way to break the leaves up with a mower or other method. If you don’t, they’re not likely to compost down before spring. Not cutting back any ornamentals can leave your winter garden looking sad and messy. Plant debris can build up and leave you with more work than you bargained for in spring, when you’d rather spend your time planting than cleaning.

We take a middle-of-the-road approach. We pulled up many, but not all, annuals to keep the garden from being a messy jungle and home to critters we don’t want. We left some for birds to land on or feed from. They take shelter in and eat from roses and other bushes left unpruned until early spring. And we don’t mow our grass late in the season; that’s proven to attract and feed wild turkeys, deer and elk.

Three fawns graze on grass and a pyracantha in our front yard.
Three fawns graze on grass and a pyracantha in our front yard right outside the kitchen window (which explains the mysterious reflection of my coffee cup planter).

In some areas, we cleaned up fallen leaves and used them to mulch tender perennials. But we didn’t try to rake leaves down by the river. That might help butterfly and other larvae through the winter, and if it also helps insects we don’t want, at least it’s far from the gardens.

What? More snow? Yep, as I was wrapping up this post. El Nino ...
What? More snow? Yep, as I was wrapping up this post. How about a break, El Nino?

The bottom line is that even if you can’t do much in your garden in winter, your garden and soil are doing lots for you and other living creatures. I try not to stress over whether I’m handling it perfectly, but choose and alter our approach based on what works best and what makes me feel best as I stare out the window at a blanket of white, itching to get back outside.

Book Review: The Market Gardener

I can’t remember now where I saw the post or news story that led me to Jean-Martin Fortier’s “The Market Gardener” (New Society Publishers, 2014). But I recall that the timing was perfect for us. We’re considering expanding our garden and using a small portion of our acreage to launch some small-scale organic farming to provide local fresh food.

book review of The Market Gardener
This is a great book to encourage people to try small farming or just help them find resources.

Fortier’s book is an excellent guide for anyone considering a small-scale organic farming operation. Even though his location and the circumstances surrounding Les Jardins de la Grelinette in Quebec are quite different from ours, there are some things all start-up operations must consider, and certainly challenges all gardeners and growers face!

What I found most helpful about the book is that the author was willing to share so much practical detail. He provides as much useful information about his biointensive approach as he does about timing of crops and layout of the farm. Even more helpful for us, Fortier offers tips for saving money, resources for buying tools and how he keeps records. He also reveals which crops have been most profitable for the farm and has a brief section covering specifics about the crops La Grelinette grows.

The book is full of charts and illustrations; the author basically shares the farm's records with readers.
The book is full of charts and illustrations; the author shares the farm’s records with readers.

For those looking to buy land and set up a new small farm operation, Fortier even discusses how to look for the best small acreage and how to lay out gardens and buildings. And he shares European techniques for weeding, as well as how he and his wife use green manure, cover crops and organic matter to replenish soil nutrients.

There are few drawbacks to this book for anyone like us exploring the idea of small organic farming. One is that I would have enjoyed seeing some actual photos of the farm and techniques. Having said that, the book has some excellent illustrations. In addition, I didn’t receive the book, which I ordered directly from themarketgardener.com, after a few weeks. I think the sellers were overwhelmed by publicity back in August when we ordered the book. But the reason I didn’t receive my copy was that my order was flagged – and this is a common problem with our address (and a long story). I heard back from someone within 24 hours of sending an e-mail inquiry. They not only responded, but more than made it right by providing me with a free, immediate electronic version of the book!

I like having both a hard copy and electronic version of the book.
I like having both a hard copy and electronic version of the book.

As with any garden or farm book, you have to weigh the information against your own zone or climate, soil and other factors that differ from those of the author.  But when an author gives so freely of practical, hard-earned advice, it’s so much easier. After both my husband and I have read the entire book, our copy already is dog-eared and marked up. I’m glad I have the electronic version now, so I can go back and search words to find advice we’ve discussed but might not have marked.

If you have an aspiring microfarmer on your gift list, I'm just sayin'...
If you have an aspiring microfarmer on your gift list, I’m just sayin’…

I highly recommend Fortier’s “The Market Gardener” as a practical guide for small local farmers, or anyone wanting to learn more about organic and microfarming.

Note: Neither Fortier nor the publisher asked me to write a review, nor did they provide the book for free (other than the complimentary PDF to make up for the late mailing). I wrote the review on my own.

Favorite Green: Arugula, Even the Wild Ones

Arugula, with its bitter flavor, is considered a gourmet green by many and way too bitter by some (namely, my husband). But the green is one of my favorites, partly for the flavor and partly because it’s so easy to grow in containers or in our high desert garden. It also grows wild around our property!

Wild arugula growing in a patch in the orchard. I just want to reach down and eat those bitter leaves!
Wild arugula growing in a patch in the orchard. I just want to reach down and munch on those yummy bitter leaves!

Maybe arugula grows so well here in New Mexico because the plant is native to the Mediterranean. We don’t water the wild bunches that grow near our house or out in our orchard, and I have no idea how they came to be there. I just know that I kept getting a whiff of arugula when mowing in certain portions of the lawn. This year, conditions were such that I was able to spot the leaves and have a bite. By late summer, the yellow flowers followed and I have asked Tim to join me in not mowing a few bunches. I prefer to grow a milder variety for my salads, but I like having the wild plants around for their scent and appearance. And there are much worse plants spreading in our yard than these tasty greens!

The wild bunches later flowered, making them pretty to smell and look at.
The wild bunches later flowered, making them pretty to smell and look at.

The taste of arugula is strong, but I love to add it to spinach or mesclun mixes, or really any greens. In fact, traditional and tangy mesclun mixes usually include arugula. The green is particularly good with blue cheese dressing and can spice up a chicken or turkey sandwich!

A single leaf of Astro Organic arugula. Image courtesy of the National Garden Bureau.
A single leaf of Astro Organic arugula. Image courtesy of the National Garden Bureau.

Baby arugula is harvested when the leaves are younger, and offers a milder flavor than mature plants. Like most greens, arugula grows best in your garden in cooler spring or fall weather. You can typically harvest the greens within 4 weeks. And if you let it go to flower, the flavor might become too intense. Most garden varieties of arugula have edible, attractive white flowers with purple veining. The wild variety has yellow flowers.

Arugula in our garden in early summer. It's best to cut from the outside. I also plan to cover it a little longer this year to keep bugs off.
Arugula in our garden in early summer. It’s best to cut from the outside. I plan to cover the young plants a little longer next year to keep bugs off.

Arugula also is called rocket or rocket salad. Some people use arugula more as an herb, sprinkling it sparingly on dishes for the peppery flavor. All fresh greens are healthy, but apparently arugula is packed with vitamins and antioxidants. To me, it’s packed with flavor and aroma!

Learn more about growing arugula in your garden in this article from Bonnie Plants, and check out Johnny’s Seeds for several varieties of wild arugula.

Five Reasons To Plan Now for Next Year’s Farm-to-Table Garden

As the first frost threatens, I know it’s time to plan next year’s vegetable and herb garden. And I’ve got five reasons for new or seasoned gardeners to do the same. I might be a little late for some of these ideas; that’s what happens sometimes! But I’ll hold onto them for next year and share some I’ve learned – like use of cover crops (no. 4), something I want to learn more about for waterwise gardening.

fresh tomato and basil from home garden
Mourning the end of the gardening season is easier with some planning, and while enjoying home-grown tomatoes and basil on some fresh mozzarella as a snack or side. Add salt, pepper, olive oil and balsamic and you have a yummy and easy Caprese salad!

1.Extend Your Season

First, can you extend the edible growing season with some fall or winter crops? If your zone allows, and it’s not too late already, then get started! We’ve planted some spinach, head lettuce and more carrots under a small hoop house with row cover fabric. Aside from many greens, favorite cool-season vegetables of gardeners are cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and several forms of broccoli. Several types of onion and garlic also grow in winter or are perennials in many zones. For example, chives are hardy to zone 3.

mini-hoop-house
Our simple mini-hoop house uses Hoop Loops, twine, row cover fabric and inexpensive brick pavers. We’ll see how long we can grow a few cool-season crops.

2. Add New Herbs

Speaking of perennials, maybe you want a perennial herb to thrive next year, and if you live in a zone that offers time to establish the plant before your fall freeze, head out and get it now! Low-water perennial herbs such as thyme, sage and rosemary survive down to at least zone 4 or 5. Or consider a window herb garden if you can’t let go of your favorite herb as the season ends, or want to try a few out for next summer! Here’s a great article on growing herbs indoors from Grow a Good Life.

close-up of thyme leaves
Thyme is an attractive herb even before it blooms. It can spread nicely in a low-water garden.

3. Prep Soil and Plan

Clean up and prep soil; make a winter to-do list. Your soil is even more tired than you are after a season of growing food for you and your family. If you’re using the same space or turning part of your lawn into a new edible growing space, you’ll likely need to prep and enrich your soil. Pull up spent plants (or whatever takes up the space now) and be sure to discard any diseased plant materials. Add compost and let it cook. Here’s what we did early last spring (did I say I’m often late?), and an article from Mother Earth Living in 2012 that has some great ideas. This is also the time to make a to-do list of fall and winter projects, such as repairs to fences and drip lines or adding raised beds. Or, let’s say you want to expand because you’re nuts like us.

Our early spring garden preparation last year to kill any remaining grass and enrich the soil with organic matter.
Our early spring garden preparation last year to kill any remaining grass and enrich the soil with organic matter.

4. Plant a Cover Crop

If it’s still warm enough to sow cover crop seeds, this is one of the best strategies for enriching your soil, depending on your zone. Field peas, hairy vetch, many clovers, oats, rye and buckwheat are popular nutrient-restoring crops that can grow in winter in your edible garden. Plant cover crops with a few caveats, however: First, in drought-stricken and normally arid areas such as New Mexico, it only makes sense to plant cover crops that can grow in our typically dry climate. I’d like to investigate more about using water for something I will mow down and mulch into the ground after a few months vs. the benefits such as erosion control and soil improvement. And I hinted at another important caution: keep cover crops mowed or otherwise under control so they don’t go to seed, and be sure to cut them down in late winter to mulch into your garden. Otherwise, they can seed and spread, becoming invasive.

5. Note Ups and Downs

Finally, if you’re like me, you want to take notes about this year’s successes and “issues” now, because it was so hard to keep up with that during the peak of the working summer and harvest season. If you didn’t create a map or somehow record where you planted each crop, make a quick inventory before cleaning up so you can easily rotate next year’s planting. Think about how to improve your garden. I need to plant a few of my crops further apart (the reason for the expansion, or perhaps more accurately, the justification for the expansion!), and I need to time my succession planting a little further apart, just tweaking it enough to spread out the harvest, but still allow seeds to sow and fruit to grow within our normally short season. Something tells me that we won’t be so lucky with our frost date next year. We also want to invest in a better seed starting setup. I can’t wait!

confused tomato
No wonder I’m up and down. I’ve got confused tomatoes. New blossoms are appearing in mid-October, but the fruit isn’t ripening and the leaves on the apricot tree in the background are turning and falling.

Personal/bonus reason: Planning now might help overcome the impending sense of loss. Maybe it’s just me, but the unseasonably warm mid-October here that has me still harvesting a few tomatoes and cucumbers is dragging out the inevitable. When the hard freeze finally hits and I wander out to the garden the next morning to see what resembles a scene from a horror movie, I know I’ll be devastated and in need of a project. If planning while enjoying my last tomato with some fresh mozzarella cheese and basil gets me through, then so be it.

I'll miss the fresh salad ingredients!
I’ll miss the fresh salad ingredients, too!

Waste Not: When Your Harvest Overwhelms You

The best part of growing your own edibles is harvesting fresh, healthy food and eating it right away. But what happens if you have a green thumb, great weather or go on vacation? I can’t stand to throw out a single tomato, and I think friends are running for fear I will hand them another zucchini.

zucchini harvest
Look! Even my dog is running from zucchini. I managed to give away or use all of this. I am not responsible for the actions of the receivers. And I learned my lesson about keeping up or cutting back.

But I know there are people who could use the fresh vegetables that I grow, especially in our area. Apparently, food waste is a bigger problem than a few overripe tomatoes from my garden. Tons and tons of produce are left unharvested in fields each year because of mechanical harvesting techniques, how hand harvesters are paid, or because the public demands perfect looking produce.

The last one is part of the reason why so many fruits and vegetables are genetically modified. Consumers are more likely to choose the shiniest apples and the brightest orange carrots, regardless of whether those choices offer the highest nutrition or flavor. I’m here to tell you that anything I’ve grown tastes better than anything I’ve ever purchased. And unless it has evidence of disease or infestation, I’ll eat it because I know where it came from!

green bean inspection
None of these green beans would pass muster in a store. The ones on the left were missed and likely are tough. But they can be frozen separately with other large beans for soups or stews. The middle beans just got caught on a fence or stalk. I can eat those. Something else has eaten on that last one, so I won’t.

Having said that, I’m guilty of choosing the nicest looking specimens when I give any of my harvest to friends or neighbors. End Food Waste Now has started a fun campaign on Twitter encouraging people to support ugly fruits and vegetables and to cut the 20 to 40 percent of global produce waste.

I’ve got a few entries below…

funny looking tomatoes
Kiss my…tomato! These are both edible, although they would never make it to a produce bin.
carrots
Here’s our dancing carrot, or rather two carrots, likely because I didn’t thin enough.

On a more serious note, I wanted to find out what to do with some of my extra vegetables, knowing there must be people in my rural community who might appreciate them. End Food Waste points visitors to AmpleHarvest.org, which links gardeners and food pantries around the country. I was surprised to find several nearby in my fairly obscure ZIP code.

Gardeners who want to take it a step further and help the nearly 36 million American households where folks have substandard diets and often seek emergency food from pantries and other organizations can join Plant a Row for the Hungry. The program from the Garden Writers Association Foundation encourages community and individual gardeners to plant one extra row each season to donate to local soup kitchens or food pantries.

So, if you have plenty of space, but especially, more harvest from your garden than you can eat, consider donating to those less fortunate. And although home-grown produce lasts longer than store-bought produce, storing fruits and vegetables properly leads to less waste.

Collect and Store Vegetable and Herb Seeds

Last week, I wrote about how to gather and save wildflower seeds to disperse right away or save for the spring. It’s also possible to save seeds from some favorite vegetables in your garden. Fall is the perfect time to gather seeds from vegetables and herbs as plants mature, slow or cease producing fruits and begin to flower.

home garden harvest
Plants begin to mature soon after the big fall harvest. Letting some fruit or seed heads dry aids seed collection.

Before getting started, take a look at the seed packet or tag for the plant you want to use as your seed source. If it’s already a hybrid, your chances of reproducing the exact size and quality of plant and fruit next year could be limited; you don’t know which characteristics you’ll get from which parent plants. You’ll have better luck if you start with fruit from an heirloom or standard source plant. Another potential problem for some crops, such as corn, melons, squash and cucumbers, is cross-pollination. It depends on how closely two different varieties are planted together and whether they flower at the same time. Here’s more information on cross-pollination from Seed Savers Exchange.

Try Gathering Seeds from These Vegetables First

A few vegetables are easier than others for harvesting and saving seeds. Among these are beans, peas, peppers and tomatoes. The easiest of these is peppers. When you slice into a bell pepper or core out a green chile, you access plenty of seeds! To gather good seeds for next year, leave the pepper on the plant until it ripens fully (most likely turning red), even wrinkling. Cut the pepper open and remove the seeds, then spread them out on a plate or cookie sheet to dry completely.

Bean and pea pods should be left on the plant until they turn brown; this can take up to about four weeks past the stage when you normally would harvest the pod for eating. If the weather forecast calls for frost and the pods are not yet brown, harvest any remaining beans for eating, then pull up the plant with the brown pods and hang them in a cool, dry spot until the pods are finished browning. Then open the pods and shell the seeds.

Harvesting tomato seeds requires a little more work. Once the fruit ripens, scoop out its seeds and the gel around seeds. Put the seeds, gel and some water in a glass jar and cover it loosely. Put the jar in a warm spot in your kitchen and stop to stir or shake the mixture every day, allowing it to ferment. You will see a layer of fungus on top, but this attacks the gel and protects the seeds. Eventually, the seeds settle to the bottom. You can pour off the liquid and remove the seeds. Rinse the seeds, then let them dry. For more information on harvesting tomato seeds, see this page from the Victory Seed Company.

bell pepper and tomato seeds
Bell pepper and tomato seeds from packets don’t look that different from those still in ripened fruit. This tomato is ready for seed collection; the bell pepper is ready for eating. To gather pepper seeds, leave it on the plant longer.

Harvest Dill Seeds

One of the easiest herbs to dry is dill. You can use the dill weed in your kitchen until the plant flowers. In fact, the leaves are at peak flavor just before flowering. When the flowers emerge, let the seed heads dry on the plant, then cut the full seed head off after seeds turn brown. Hang the seed heads upside down with a paper bag loosely secured around or just under them to catch seeds as they dry and fall off.

Since the quantity of seeds you’ll gather from your own garden is small, you can use envelopes or small jars for storage. Other than that, follow the same advice as for other seeds – keep them in a cool, dry place during the winter.

dried corn herb seeds
Some seeds are easier to buy, especially lettuce. And some are just pretty!

As with flowers, I believe most vegetables and herbs are simply easier to grow from purchased seeds, especially if you have a trusted supplier. Seeds cost little, and I enjoy trying new varieties, especially to find plants suited to our shorter season. If I find an heirloom or nonhybrid that works great in our garden, however, we might be inclined to gather and save the seeds!

Favorite Easy-to-Grow Vegetable: Green Beans

I love growing green beans so much that I went a little crazy this year. I still love to grow and eat them, but please, come take some off my hands!

fresh-green-beans
These are just a few of the green beans I picked the other morning. Plenty more where those came from! And where they’re going — to friends or the freezer.

Actually, one of the reasons I love growing beans is that they are so easy to preserve. Although you can preserve them with canning, they are so darned easy to freeze that canning seems like a crazy idea unless you don’t have an extra freezer…or two.

Planting beans

This year, I planted two types of Phaseolus vulgaris: A French filet bush bean and a Blue Lake pole bean. Both are warm season plants, listing about a 58 to 60 day seed-to-maturity date. We had a really good germination rate when planting about eight days after the last frost. I planted four more beans three weeks later for a succession. Next year, I will wait a few more weeks for that second planting because all of the plants are mature right now and I have enough green beans for a small city. The alternative is fewer plants in each succession, three weeks apart. It’s just important to plant the final wave of plants so they can mature and produce before the first fall frost. I know the pole beans require room to roam, but I now prefer them to the bush plants for bean production, plant health and for gardener ergonomics.

The package recommended thinning the beans to every 4 to 6 inches. I think I will give the ones on the end a little more room next year for trellising. Beans need warm, loose, fertile soil to germinate and thrive. They have to be directly sowed, not transplanted.

Green bean care

We used an inexpensive studded metal fence post and square welded metal fencing system to support the beans. I’ve mentioned in a previous post how the mature beans, which face south, serve as shade for lettuce plants on the north side of the fence. I can still easily harvest the beans on the north side without stepping on the lettuce, at least if I am paying attention.

green beans on fence trellis
The beans run along the middle fence, with a cucumbers on the end and melons along the south fence.

Water beans regularly and early in the day from below the foliage if at all possible. Wet leaves can cause disease such as white mold. Beans are susceptible to aphids, and I’m sure I had some because I also had ants on and around mine. A fine, hard spray of water, repeated a few days later, can wash off aphids. But since you don’t want to wet the bean plant’s leaves, it’s best to spray them early in the morning on a sunny, warm day.

Harvesting and storing green beans

Harvesting green beans is one of my favorite garden activities. I think that is one reason I planted so many! I love finding a perfectly sized bean hiding under the leaves or on the other side of the fence. I have found they’re easiest to pick in early morning or late in the day when there is no sun in my eyes. It helps to look up when bending low to spot beans hiding under leaves; I hate finding one I have missed that is too mature. You can spot the mature beans by their length and the swollen, rolling shape. Pick them before they get to that point. That usually means harvesting at least twice a week; I try to pick every other day during the height of the plants’ production. I hang a bag on my arm to free up both hands so I don’t damage the stalks or smaller beans as I pull.

green beans on the stalk
These beans were hiding under a bunch of leaves, and the beans look like stalks. But when you find a handful at just the right stage, total bliss.

As I said, green beans are really easy to freeze. I rinse, then blanch and cool the beans. Most articles recommend snapping the beans before blanching and freezing, and I am sure there is a reason for this. I don’t snap before freezing, but don’t take my word for it because I am not a food safety expert. Blanching involves boiling the beans for just two minutes or so – too long makes them limp and depletes their high nutritional value. Immediately place the beans in clean ice water, then spread them out on a cookie sheet or similar tray (I line mine with paper towels). I let them sit just long enough to drain on the towels, then put them in the freezer no longer than overnight. The next day, I put them into a plastic bag and mark them with the date.

frozen green beans
Another package of beans is ready for the freezer. I like them steamed or sauteed with garlic, lemon, parmesan and pine nuts.

Apparently, frozen beans also lose some of their nutritional value after a few months in the freezer. I’ll still take the nutrition that’s left over anything I could buy in the store or yukky canned ones!

Tomato Hornworms: How to Spot and Control Them

I have to admire the tomato and tobacco hornworms, even if they give me the creeps to the point that I make unflattering girlie noises when I see them, and especially when I pick them off my tomato plants. Talk about adaptation at its finest! The tomato and tobacco hornworms (Manduca quinquemaculata and M. sexta) can grow up to four inches long, but still hide from unsuspecting gardeners as they nearly destroy a tomato plant’s foliage.

tobacco hornworm on tomato plant
This tobacco hornworm clings to the underside of a tomato plant branch, a typical hiding spot for the caterpillars. You can see the horn on its tail.

About hornworms

Both hornworms are larvae of the adult sphinx moth, often called the hummingbird moth because the large insect hovers near flowers like a hummingbird, only near dawn and dusk. Both have three legs in the front and several other “prolegs” that help them climb and grab onto branches (and your gloves when you pick them!). A tiny spindle on the tail gives them their horn name, but the caterpillars don’t sting. The tomato hornworm has eight, diagonal stripes on each side that are white against its adult-sized bright green background. Tobacco hornworms have only seven stripes and a slightly curved and red horn.

tobacco hornworm on Desert willow
Here’s a shot of what appears to be a giant hornworm on a Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis), which is not a member of the Solanaceae family, a family that includes tomatoes, tobacco plants and eggplants. An astute visitor (see the comment below) informed me that this is the Manduca rustica, the only Manduca that thrives on non-solanaceous plants. I found out it also prefers lower elevations, which would explain the Tucson spotting.

The chewing mouthparts are on the head, and they can do some serious damage. In fact, the name “Manduca” translates to glutton. Strike two against the hornworm. The first one I found this season had sawed through three gorgeous green tomatoes. I’m sorry I didn’t take a photo, but I was too mad and on the hunt. I never found the perpetrator, and believe that its final gluttonous act might have been at the end of the larvae’s mature stage. These were pretty large gaps in the tomatoes, about as big around as my ring finger and straight across the tomato, sort of like the hornworm rode a slip-and-slide through the fruit. Plus, we had missing leaves on a few branches. I guess hornworms stop eating right before they molt, emptying all that yummy green tomato and foliage, which is another way to spot them on your plants.

signs of hornworm on tomato
Signs of a hornworm buffet and another great reason to grow tomatoes in containers. It was easy to spot the numerous hornworm droppings on the patio.

Controlling hornworms organically

The best way to control hornworms on your tomatoes is observation. Look for branches with stripped leaves, usually toward the outer ends. The best time to find the hornworms, however, is early and late in the day, when it’s cooler and the light is low. They eat then, but move to the center of the plant when the sun is out, presumably to rest, digest and hide from you! It’s also a lot easier to spot them when it’s shady, with no sun in your eyes. I found four or five on this grape tomato plant just before sunset the other night.

hornworm damage to tomato plant
Aside from droppings on leaves or ground and patio below, hornworms typically strip entire branches.

Be ready when you pick the worm off to either drop it into a bucket of water, or a combination of soap and water. Or if you prefer, cut the worm in half with shears. I actually started to feel sorry for one that clung to my glove, and then I remembered strike two. And if I had not pulled those four off of my grape tomato plant, there would be nothing left of it today. It’s also important to consider the Manduca life cycle – every hornworm you leave on a plant wanders around the garden and buries itself into your soil to become a pupa. The pupae lay second generation eggs in your soil to restart the cycle!

Wasps can help control hornworms, and I wonder if we have more of a problem this year because we have seen fewer wasps (for some unknown reason). If a hornworm has small, white cocoons on its back, leave it alone. The braconid wasp is doing the job for you. Attracting wasps near your garden can help control hornworms.

After a season with a particularly bad hornworm problem, it’s recommended that you pull up all tomato, eggplant and pepper plants to expose possible pupae. If you have chickens that can graze the soil after turning it, even better! If the problem is really bad, organic Bacillus thuringensis can work as a biological control.

For all I will do to control hornworms, I still admire them as an example of adapted nature. They usually win – there is no way to find all of them in your garden, mostly because they are masters of disguise, looking just like a tomato branch or curled leaf. They eat well, undergo total metamorphosis and those that make it past vigilant gardeners or farmers get to live the dream so many of us have – they can fly. Over gardens, hovering by flowers. I still don’t feel bad about picking them off my tomatoes, though.