Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Tomato update and more

I received a high compliment this week. I was working in the front garden, when 3 typically noisy teenage boys came strutting their way down the street, talking their jive, pushing each other around a bit, trying to act cool. One of the boys looks at me and says, unexpectedly, “Hey, I love your garden”. Then one of the other boys, the biggest, baddest of the bunch, smiles and says “Yeah, you have a bad-ass garden!” and gave me some sort of thumbs up type hand sign that I can’t quite remember right now. Oh yeah, I’m cool –

I finally picked the rest of the grafted tomatoes. They were still green, with some of them just barely starting to turn, but I couldn't wait any longer. I have been holding off on harvesting them, knowing that the upcoming days were forecasted to be warm and sunny, and I was trying to give them every chance to ripen on the vine. 

A pound and a half of tomato

However, waiting this long was a bad judgment. First the good news: ‘Chocolate Stripes’ yielded 20 more pounds of (mostly green) tomatoes at this last picking, bringing the total pounds harvested, on this one plant, to over 77 pounds! ‘Brandywine’, though consistently at or near the top of the taste tests, is known to be a somewhat poor producer – still, there was an additional 14 pounds picked, for a total of 52 pounds. I can live with that. The bad news is that the pounding rain we had in September took a toll. Either it was physical damage to the tomatoes, or the quick influx of water through the system of the plants from the rain, but almost all 35 pounds of the newly picked tomatoes had some sort of brown watery spot on them, and I knew it would be a race to see if they would ripen before the rot spread too far. They have been sitting on the counter now for 6 days, and a few of them that were nearest to ripening have turned red, and we were able to salvage about half of each of them. There are some pretty big tomatoes there, and even half of one of these is a respectable size. But they are going downhill fast, and I've already delegated some to the compost pile. Unfortunately, I think most of them will be a loss. So I guess I can’t honestly say that I got 125 pounds of  EDIBLE tomatoes from these 2 plants, but they were harvested nonetheless. So it counts. Next year I need to be more diligent in picking them before the rain and cold hits. Every year is a learning process. And I never consider it a waste if something ends up feeding my compost pile. It’s all part of the cycle.  

I've started to work through the spent jungle of tangled up plants, neatening up the perennials and cutting back annuals at ground level, leaving their roots in the ground to decompose. I’m trying to disturb the soil as little as possible. I see no reason to pull them out, as long as there is no evidence of root disease or insects problems. I think it will be good for the soil to let them decay in place. And I've cleared enough debris out now to see where the English Ivy, bindweed and fireweed have encroached into my space from our neighbor’s yard along the fence line. It took a while to dig them and pull them out, but I know I am just stemming the tide. They'll be back. 

The Black Eyed Susan Vine (Thunbergia alata) is still performing well, with scattered blooms, climbing up the remains of the holly trunk. This is a good plant for this situation, as it is a fast grower and a prolific bloomer. I was pairing it with 'Heavenly Blue' morning glories, which in theory sounds beautiful to me, I love the orange/blue color combo, but the morning glories never quite lived up to my expectations. Not sure why. 

Black Eyed Susan Vine 
Thunbergia alata 

(Note to self – next year plant the Black Eyed Susan vines earlier in the season, and more of them - don’t bother with the ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glories planted as companions – it’s a fabulous color combination, but for 2 years in a row the morning glories were such a struggle, started blooming so late, the leaves would wilt easily, and they never really lived up to the image I had. And don’t bother with the expensive gallon size plants of the Thunbergia. The one from the 4” pot I planted was just as big and healthy as the one from the gallon after a few weeks of growth, actually better. And use more of them the garden next year, maybe in different colors.)  

Plant profile:  Thunbergia alata (Black eyed Susan Vine) Native to tropical areas of East Africa, this twining vine is perennial and evergreen in warmer climates (zone 10) but for most of us it is grown as an annual, blooming all summer and fall, from seed sown in spring. It is a fast grower and a prolific bloomer, with attractive, broadly toothed, elongated arrow or heart shaped leaves with a rough texture. It covers itself with a multitude of flowers with 5 spreading petals, about 1 1/2 across. The typical color is a warm orange with a dark brownish spot in the center, but there are varieties in various shades of oranges, yellows, and white, with or without the dark eye spot, Most references give the growth rate to about 8' in a season, but ours has grown over 10' this year. In its native habitat and in warm climates, overwintering as a perennial vine, it can reach 20' or more. It is an excellent choice as a seasonal covering for a trellis or a fence, up the side of a house, or as a quick cover for an unsightly corner. The thin stems twine, but they need something to twine on, so give it some kind of support to twist itelf around.  It is frequently used in hanging baskets, where it will trail to about 4'. It does best in average soil, average watering, and full sun or afternoon shade. 

Thunbergia alata 
showing the 'winged' leaf stems 

(Nomenclature note: 
Thunbergia - named for Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1827), a Swedish naturalist and student of medicine, who spent many years in Africa and Japan exploring for plants. considered to be the Father of South African Botany.  
alata - winged, referring to the ridged (winged) petioles (the leaf stems) or maybe for the ridges on the seed capsules) 

I finally cut back the sunflowers. I was leaving the heads on for the birds. I like seeing the chickadees hanging upside down, pecking out the seeds. But now the stems are cut back to stumps, (again, no point in pulling out the roots ) and the few heads that still had seeds in them are now lying face up on the ground and the birds (and squirrels ) are still working on them. A bright blue California Jay was pecking away at them yesterday morning – bossy bully birds, but what a color! Kind of like ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glories on the wing.   

The front yard compost pile, hidden from view by the bamboo trellis that is covered with Scarlet Runner beans in summer, was decomposed enough to use as mulch, so it is now spread over the area that I just cleaned up. It looks better already, and if nothing else was done to this area, I feel like it is ready for winter. But there will still be cleanup to attend to. There were a few zinnias and cosmos with flowers, so I left those. The spots of color are nice, and the bees and other pollinators are still out looking for food. The curly parsley that I planted last year (2012) was left to go to seed this year, so I am seeing LOTS of parsley seedlings germinating under the plants. I don’t think I will ever have to plant it again if I just keep letting at least one go to seed, and keep transplanting the seedlings to better spots. They make such a lovely edging to the flower borders, The frilly foliage is so clean and rich looking, so pretty, and so tasty, and the flowers are such lovely green umbels, swarming with tiny bees this summer. Next year I hope to learn what those bees are.  

(Note to self: use more green flowers next year)

I borrowed this great gardening helper last weekend. A seat for weeding, then turn it over and you have a comfy padded kneeler! Actually, it was a gift to my Mom many years ago, when we thought she could use it, as she was getting older. You can see it's been well used. She is no longer with us, but I came across it in my dad's garage and thought, now isn't that a great idea! So, am I getting old, or just smart? Don't answer that. 

Add caption

This stately specimen of Red Maple (Acer rubrum) is in the yard next door, going out in a blaze of glory. I covet those leaves, so I've got my rake and my wheelbarrow ready. Somehow, the neighbors don't seem to mind.  

Blazing !  

Friday, October 18, 2013

Requiem for a Red Rose

My apologies to you, my dear rose loving friends.  I admit right off the bat that I am not a rose person. They always seem to be more trouble than they are worth, and most rose bushes lack any sense of grace, in my eyes. That said, there are exceptions - to be noted later.  

I don’t like plants that stick me. Last week, I spent way too many hours with my friend Kim, pulling overgrown blackberries out of the display garden at the nursery in Battle Ground - humongous arching canes that seemed to come out of nowhere, poking up through thickets of overgrown shrubs, sometimes arching out 20' or more - 3 big pickup truck loads worth of brambles - 3 smashed down, overflowing loads. We are both showing the battle scars.  

And blackberries are really, in a way, just little roses. Well, sort of. They are, after all, in the same family (Rosaceae). And yes, I know you shouldn’t judge someone by the family he was born into, but still – a prickle is a prickle is a prickle. (blackberries and roses technically have prickles, not thorns. Prickles are outgrowths of the epidemis - the outer skin of the stem. They grow all long the stem and are usually easy to break off without damaging the stem. Roses and blackberries have them, in abundance! 

Prickle on a rose 

Thorns are different. They grow out of the leaf axils and are really modified, pointy stems, as in this Meyer Lemon or in Pyracantha.  

Thorns on a Meyer Lemon 

Pyracantha - can't see the spines, but they are there

Now, spines are something different again. They are really modified leaves, as in this Opuntia (Prickly Pear Cactus) - think of this cactus pad as a big flattened stem and the spines as the leaves.  

Spines on an Opuntia Cactus 

(Nomenclature note:  Pyracantha comes from 2 Greek words -  pyr: meaning 'fire' – think funeral pyre or pyromaniac) and akanthos – meaning 'thorn' – so, literally, ‘Fire thorn’. This is also the common name of this plant, because of the fiery orange or red clusters of berries it gets in the fall, and the sharp thorns.)     

Yes, an individual rose is beautiful, and a well tended, disease resistant plant, can be lovely. And no one can argue that the fragrance is heady and intoxicating. And those bright orange or red rose hips are very pretty and very healthy for us.    

And, I admit to not knowing as much about roses as perhaps I should and so maybe I am pre-judging. But I do know that most roses are very disease prone and need lots of maintenance, usually of the chemical kind.   

I have seen some very effective and clean looking shrub roses. In fact I have one - ‘Paprika’ in the ‘Oso Easy’ series of landscape roses. I really do like his one. The color is exactly right, the size is right (I can easily keep to about 3 x 3, with occasional selective pruning.) I like that it is bushy and forms a nice foliage mound with small, glossy, dark green leaves that have never had a spot of disease, and it just keeps blooming all summer with 2”+ open faced flowers that the bees love. There are other colors in this series, but I only have room for one. So, see, maybe I do like roses !  

Paprika Rose

There is an exception to every rule, so they say, and this is mine. A rose that I really love, and this one is BECAUSE OF the prickles, is a species rose called (get ready) Rosa sericea forma pterocantha, or sometimes called Rosa omeiensis forma pterocantha (the Flora of China lists these as  separate species - small differences , but both have the ‘pterocantha’ form - botanists don’t always agree) – nevertheless, it is the pteracantha part here that is the key. Now these are prickles I can get behind! They are huge and beautifully translucent red and they light up like lanterns when the sun shines through them. It is the main reason that gardeners grow this one. It gets much too large for our little garden in Salem, but it’s a pretty cool plant and I would grow it if I had room to spare. It has small white flowers in early summer, but they come and go quickly, lovely but fleeting.

Rosa sericea forma pterocantha

(Nomenclature note: pteracantha  from the Greek word pteron meaning 'wing' (think Pterosaurus – literally –‘winged lizard’) and acanthus meaning 'thorn' – so 'winged thorn', referring to the giant thorns (well okay, prickles, but obviously used interchangeably in this description.)  


I said my final goodbyes to the red hybrid tea rose that was growing in the front corner of the garden this week. It has been here at least 26 years, and I am guessing that it is much older than that. Since I have known it, it has always had black spot and mildew, has been somewhat misshapen, sort of weak, and this year I started noticing viral symptoms.    

So I finally did it. I dug it up. I feel good about it, but kind of bad also, because Marc does love his roses. But we all have a life span, and this one, I’m afraid, had reached the end of hers. It had a long life, and it is time to make room for the younger generation. If it does in fact have the mosaic rose virus as I suspect, it is probably the reason that it never lived up to its potential, at least on my watch, and will just continue to get weaker with time. So it is in the compost bin now, soon to be on its way to the municipal compost heap. But I thanked it for its long life and the pleasure it gave to Marc and to anyone else who paid attention to it all these years. (yes, I really do that)

Requiem for a Red Rose   
Now I have an open spot to plant something else. It’s a big decision in this tiny yard, where everything counts. In preparation though, I started a little mini compost pile in the hole where the rose was. I loosened the soil to about 20” deep and a little wider around, dumped in a bucket load of food scraps, added some of the not-quite finished compost from the pile that I am using for mulch, and mixed it with the soil from the hole, making sure that any food scraps were deeply covered. By next spring, the worms and microorganisms will have done their job and I should have a nice fertile spot for something new.   

Till Later --- 


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Sunny and Warm, so GET TO WORK !

So, after the rainfest we had in September (wettest September on record in the Pacific NW) and some seriously stormy weather in the first 2 weeks of October, we are cycling around to something just a little more comfortable. Can anyone say 'perfect'? 
Portland/Salem weather forecast Oct 15 - 21

And that's good because there is so much to do in the garden right now. Major clean-up is underway, and there is no telling how long this fine weather will last, so I better get busy. Most of the annuals have succumbed to the ravages of old age, coupled with cold nights and driving rain. Zinnia heads are soggy sad. The perennials are dying back, sending their energy to their roots to fortify themselves for winter. Some of the hostas have bright yellow fall color, but the leaves have started to show the dry brown spotting of decay. Dying stems are getting all tangled up in each other and browning leaves are dangling, falling to the ground, Weeds that have been hidden all summer under major leafiness are now exposed, having patiently waited for their moment in the sun, and are ready to run with it. So things are starting to look pretty shabby. I never really think of it as unsightly, it is just nature doing its thing, and even though I am intrigued by the decaying process, I do try to keep things somewhat tidy and keep the diseases at bay as much as possible. My October garden To-Do list is long, and I likely won't get to it all, but there are some projects that have made it to my Must-Do list.  

Must Do List  

Cut back dead and dying annuals and vegetables. 

Tidy up perennials, but leave any seed heads on for the birds, 

Lightly rake up most of the debris.  

Weed ! Now that much of the foliage is gone throughout the garden, it is easy to see the miscellaneous weeds (lots of oxalis!) that was hiding underneath it all. The soil is moist and many of the weeds are young  and so they are easy to pull. Spending a little time at it now will save major time later. Carefully dig and pull any bindweed. 

Put anything obviously diseased and any perennial weeds into the compost-bin for pickup. 

Compost - it's ongoing, but there is so much to put in it this time of year. Keep a pile of woodier stuff seperate to add to pile-making, for aeration and carbon.    

Mulch! Probably the most important fall activity for soil improvement. I have a couple of compost piles that I have been working for the last couple of months and they are just about ready to use. Even though there are still some twigs and straw and corn cobs recognizable, it will make great mulch as it is, bringing up oodles of worms to finish the job. It will have transformed into beautiful healthy soil by spring. 

Rake leaves  - mix into compost piles 

Rake leaves - stockpile them until there is enough to layer with 'green ' material. to make a 'hot' pile at least 3' high x 5' wide.   

Rake leaves - spread as mulch on the garden.  

Rake leaves - they just keep falling --     

One last lawn mowing - maybe.  


So things are winding down, but there are still flashes of color.


Coleus and Tuberous Begonia

Agastache 'Orange Nectar' 


I have been waiting all summer for this Angel's Trumpet (Brugmansia) to bloom, and had almost given up on it. Admittedly, it got off a late start. In fact I'm kind of surprised that it is alive at all. Due to lack of overwintering space, it was left out in the cold, uncovered, all winter, in a large pot. I had resigned myself to thinking of it as an annual, and had given it up for dead. (Brugmansia is native to tropical areas of South America where it can become a large shrub or small tree, reaching from 10 to 36 feet. It needs winter protection here (zone 8) to do well.) But life is persistent, and in spite of my mistreatment, it sent a up a couple of small shoots very early on, and continued to grow, though not blooming, until finally culminating this week in a late show of these loveliest of trumpet flowers, all opening within a few days. There are still a few small flower buds forming, but certainly there is not enough heat or time for them to develop before cold envelopes them, so this is it. A wonderful late season surprise.   

Brugmansia in bloom, finally   


The pollinators are still at it, though l am seeing fewer and fewer of them. All summer long the yard was abuzz, but now, with fewer flowers, there is, of course, less nectar to go around. I have been seeing quite a bit of honeybee action at the hummingbird feeder, but the holes are too small for them to get to the sugar water. But this pretty little bee, a Halictid bee, (sometimes called a Sweat bee, as some species in this group are attracted to human sweat) is hard at work. She has an iridescent green head and thorax and a black and white striped abdomen. Very stylish. 

Little green bee (Halictid Bee) 


These 'Sungold' and 'Sweet 100' Cherry Tomatoes trained up against the south side of the house are still going strong. They are under the eaves of the house, and this, together with the warmth of the house, should keep them ripening for a while longer. And there are still a LOT of tomatoes on them. If  'Sungold', starting to drape down on the left, was stretched out, it would easily reach 12 feet.  


This pic was taken about a 2 months ago,
just as they were starting to ripen

Look at all these tomatoes in one cluster! 


I found the missing garlic! Have you ever put something away for safe keeping so well that you couldn't remember where it was ? That was my problem. I finally found them on the top shelf of a gardening shelf in the basement, right where I put them. Now I'm happy.  

There are 2 kinds of garlic in this picture. The 5 in front are a soft neck variety called 'Susanville'. The four in back are 'Kettle River Giant', with qualities of both hardneck and softneck. (I'm working on a Garlic page, to be posted soon, to explain all this in greater detail, plus a lot of cultural information.) They were the biggest of the bulbs, saved from our garlic harvest this last July. The ultimate size of the garlic bulb depends on, besides cultural conditions, the size of the cloves one starts with. 


Cloves all separated, spaced, and ready to plant !

Kettle River Giant  



'Till Later -  Happy Gardening ! 


Saturday, October 12, 2013

Things I Love

I love my garden.  I love talking about my garden.  I love talking to other people about their gardens.   

I love that I am able to take just a few steps out the front door, with a dinner menu in mind, dig a carrot or two, gather some lettuce, pick a nice shiny banana pepper or cherry pepper and a succulent, perfectly ripe, juicy tomato, a crispy cucumber and some tender young beans from the trellis up against the south side of the house (shall it be purple, golden, or green beans tonight?). I add a handful of fresh herbs (tarragon and basil are nice, maybe some parsley, too) and have the freshest possible salad on the table in short order.  (Disclaimer : Marc is the chef, I’m only the kitchen help – sometimes.  More on this at a future blog post).  

I love that this food that we eat grew out of this soil that is so rich and full of life itself, (there will be a lot about soil to follow in future posts). I love that it comes directly from the garden into our bodies and it then literally becomes part of us. I love this connection with the earth and the way it makes me feel about this cycle of life. 

I love compost. I am never happier than when I have a bag of kitchen scraps in hand and am heading out to add it to one of my many compost piles. Well, okay, maybe there are things that make me happier, BUT it certainly ranks up there as one of the activities in which I find great pleasure.   

This is my first post, and I think I am going to really enjoy writing this blog. There are so many things to talk about, that its hard to know where to start.  

So, for starters, here are a few of the vegetables that are still going str
ong in the front yard garden. 

'Chocolate Stripes' grafted tomato

It’s kind of hard to see, but there are 2 tomato plants on this trellis, ‘Brandywine’ and ‘Chocolate Stripes’. These are grafted tomatoes, and I will be writing more about the grafted tomatoes in later blogs, but I am really sold on them. Briefly, the idea behind grafting is that a cutting (the scion) from a tomato variety that is desired for eating is grafted onto another tomato (the understock) that doesn't necessarily have the best tomatoes for eating, but is a naturally vigorous and disease resistant type with the potential to develop a very large root system. Based on my experience and comparison planting done by others, because the root systems can be 5–10 times larger than a regular tomato and reach deeper for more water and nutrients, the grafted tomato plants are bigger, huskier, more disease resistant, with more and larger tomatoes. They also hold up longer in the fall. The one in the picture with the green tomatoes hanging is an heirloom variety called ‘Chocolate Stripes’ and has already yielded 44 pounds! of tomatoes, many of those being over a pound each. There are at least 10-15 pounds of tomatoes still to be picked on this one plant. There are some warm, sunny days coming up, near 70 degrees, so I have hopes that these green tomatoes will either ripen, or at least become mature enough so that if we have to pick them green, they will have a good chance of ripening off the vine.  If not, we will learn to make fried green tomatoes!  

Some tomatoes do weird things 

Capitano romano beans 

Capitano beans, a golden Romano bush bean type, planted on August 9, as a fall crop. I expect that we will be eating fresh beans again within a week! If the weather holds, we’ll have them for another month. 


Kohlrabi 'Superschmeltz'
I do have fun growing kohlrabi. This is a vegetable that many people are still unfamiliar with, but it should be better known. It’s easy to grow, and delicious. I love the space alien look of it, the crunchy texture and the very mild cabbage taste. We like to eat it raw, with hummus or in salad, but there are lots of ways to cook it.  Marc added some strips to pickled beets. The kohlrabi took on the reddish color of the beets and It was a perfect combination. This is a giant variety with the fabulously fun name of ‘Supershmeltz’, (just try saying it out loud) with the potential to grow up to 10” across. Ours never got quite that large. These are only about 6” across, but as you can see in the picture, they are too crowded. Next year I will be more diligent about thinning, difficult as it is to throw out perfectly good plants! But, like most vegetables, they need space to reach their full potential, but really, don’t we all?  


Cherry Peppers
We still have a few peppers hanging on, trying to turn red.  These are cherry peppers, of the mild variety. There is also a hot variety. These are the peppers that pimentos are made of, the kind you find stuffed in your green olives. I think these are just the cutest peppers, less than 2” across, with a thick, meaty flesh. I like to eat them raw, as is, but they would also make great little individual appetizers - just cut off the top, scoop out the seeds, and you have a perfect little shiny red cup to fill up with whatever filling sounds good to you.  And prolific !  There were over 80 peppers from one plant , and probably closer to 100, but I lost count ! I will definitely be growing this again next year.   


Scarlet Runner Beans
Scarlet Runner beans have clusters of flashy orange/red flowers that hummingbirds LOVE, and tons of big, somewhat flat, meaty beans. I would grow them for the flowers alone, in fact that was my intention, and to cover a trellis to hide the compost pile, but the beans are surprisingly good. I don’t know why it should have been a surprise, probably because most references that I have seen stress the ornamental and hummingbird attracting qualities, not their culinary qualities. Also the pods have kind of a rough texture that put me off at first.  But they are really good! They are kind of meaty, with a lot of substance, and very tasty both raw and cooked. In fact, they are the most popularly eaten bean in England. They are also reportedly very good as a dried bean, and I have seen reference to them as ‘Oregon Lima bean’. The dried beans are quite beautiful - big and flat, purple mottled with black. So at this point, I am letting whatever pods are left on the vines, and there are quite a few pods left, get large and mature enough to be used as dry beans.  

Scarlet runner beans are native to Central America, and are actually a perennial vine, but for most of us, they are treated as an annual, though they have been known to overwinter in protected areas in western Oregon, emerging multi-stemmed from the tuberous roots in spring. And a tidbit of botanical nomenclature – the genus names for beans in general is Phaseolus. Scarlet Runner beans are Phaesolus coccinea.  Coccinea means red.   


Ready for Garlic
So, now I've got the garlic bed all ready to plant; it’s time. And we lost the garlic!!! After harvesting last year’s garlic crop, I had set aside the biggest heads of the 2 varieties we grew, for replanting. Now it’s time, and they are nowhere to be found! They were in paper bags, somewhere in the basement, and I know they were not used. I feel like I’ve looked everywhere, but obviously not, unless they got thrown out somehow. So it’s time to get back down into the basement and look in all the corners and under stuff I would probably rather not look under. I really don’t’ want to have to buy garlic starts. And these were big and beautiful. I’m not giving up yet. 


                                             So that's it for now - be back soon !  

                                                 Let me know what you think !