Saturday, June 16, 2012


I was driving past a nursery on the way home from an event in Vermont, and it's a place I'd always wanted to check out, but I'd always been on a deadline. This past weekend, though, I actually had some time to use up, so I didn't arrive at my destination too early.

I'm so glad I stopped in. I found Chipman's Canada Red rhubarb, which I can't get locally, and thought I'd have to wait until next year to order. Now we'll get it going this year, and perhaps be able to harvest some next year, instead of losing a whole growing season.

Plus, they had a patio-sized container with a Purple Passion pepper plant in it, complete with the passionately purple (sort of eggplant colored) fruits, nearing maturity. Sure, I had 30 sweet pepper plants already growing in the garden, but I needed this variety. So now we've got 34 sweet pepper plents growing. (Except one of the Aces was beheaded by some critter -- snapped the plant in half, presumably to eat the top half, and then apparently spit it out, because pepper plants are yukky. I'm hoping he's learned his lesson and won't check the others, in case they taste better. I'm not sure if that plant will recover, but I've seen peppers come back from worse damage.)

So, we've got $15 to add to this year's expenses.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Abandoning the early garlic variety

We planted at least 20 cloves of the early garlic variety last fall, and I just harvested about half that many heads. If that wasn't discouraging enough, none of the heads were very big, and some of them weren't even divided into cloves. It's possible that they were affected by a mini-drought that occurred at just the wrong time this year.

I'd just about decided we weren't going to keep planting them anyway, but now it's official. In the future, if we're desperate for garlic (and I was fairly desperate -- I'd run out of both fresh bulbs and pickled cloves) before the standard harvest time, we always have thousands of volunteer plants (from discarded bulbils) that can be pulled early.

As far as I can tell, the last few weeks of garlic's growth cycle is more about drying out the skins around the individual cloves than anything else. I pulled a few volunteers (of the German Extra-Hardy variety) last week, in the course of preparing the bed for other types of plants, and they were a good size, flavorful, and fully formed. The only thing different from the fully matured heads I've harvested in the past is that the skins, both on the outside of the head, and the wrappers on the individual cloves, were more like onion layers than the usual paper-y texture. They weren't easy to peel, and they probably wouldn't have stored as well as more mature ones, but they were fine for immediate use.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Skewed expectations

When I was getting our plants at the local nursery, I convinced someone to get Ace peppers instead of a more standard bell pepper. She mentioned that she'd never had any luck with peppers in the past, but was planning to give it one more try.

It sounded like her past problems were twofold: the wrong variety and skewed expectations. She'd been growing something like Cal Wonder (there's a reason it's called California Wonder, not New England Wonder), and was expecting it to grow as thick-walled as the ones in the grocery store.

I did warn her that Ace isn't intended to be thick-walled, but that it's prolific, and, when eaten fresh, has an absolutely amazing crunch that the thicker-walled ones lack. I do hope she likes them. If she can learn to love the smaller, crisper, thinner-walled varieties that grow well here, she'll have better success.

NPR's Science Friday had a segment on flavorless commercial tomatoes, and how the scientists think that, after extensively taste-testing heirloom varieties, they may have a better handle on the genetic traits that contribute to flavor (instead of the usual traits winter tomatoes are bred for: perfectly round shape, heavy production and the ability to travel undamaged). He's hoping to be able to breed commercial varieties that have both flavor and the commercially valuable traits.

I'm not as optimistic as the scientist seemed. Among other things, he mentioned that if a home grower planted one of the commercial varieties in a good soil, and let it ripen fully on the vine, she'd end up with a "good tomato, but not a great tomato." A lot of the flavor, he admits, has to do with the quality of the soil and, particularly, letting it ripen on the vine. I'm not sure how developing a more flavorful variety is going to help all that much, if the plants are still being grown hydroponically (or in depleted soil), and picked green for traveling long distances.

One comment he made, that really stuck with me and does give me some hope, was something to the effect of "There's no financial incentive for major growers to produce a more flavorful winter tomato; the financial incentive is to produce more quantity, regardless of the flavor quality."

And we, as consumers, are essentially doing exactly that. We're buying the ghastly, flavorless winter tomatoes, despite complaining. (I suppose a lot of home gardeners aren't buying them, actually, but are doing what I do, which is to eat fresh tomatoes only in the summer.) Why are they being bought, when everyone knows they taste horrible?

If consumers stopped buying the flavorless tomatoes and stopped expecting visual perfection (instead of culinary perfection), that might create a financial incentive for the major growers to grow better winter tomatoes. Or maybe our expectations would become more realistic, and we would do most of our fresh tomato eating during the warmer six months of the year, and skip them during the colder six months of the year.