Your Garden’s Second Act

This time of year is when many vegetable gardens peak, and then begin to wane. The cucumbers have produced their little plant hearts out, and now the plants are beginning to die off. Lettuce is beginning to bolt in hot weather. For most people, this is a sign that harvest time is beginning and soon, it will be time to start cleaning up the dead plant debris and putting the garden to bed for the winter. But not so fast! There are still at least three months of garden-tolerable weather ahead of us, so don’t quit on your garden now. It’s time for your garden’s second act, a.k.a. the fall vegetable garden.

Now is the time to plant a second crop of lettuce. Root crops such as carrots, turnips, and rutabaga, can also be planted at this time – and these can be left in the ground over the winter to harvest for a delicious hot stew. There’s even time to plant a crop of wax beans. And as late as October, you can plant storage onion bulbs and cloves of garlic for verdant crops of both next spring and a bountiful harvest in the summer. So don’t throw in the trowel just yet. There’s still time to grow more crops beyond what you originally planted in the spring.

The Intimate Gardener

Garden Heart 2

We all know that fruits and vegetables are good for our overall physical health. They provide all of the necessary nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and other as yet undiscovered food factors that our bodies need to survive and thrive. But fruits and vegetables are capable of much more than the mere enhancement of physical health. They also play a role in improving the intimate lives that we share with our romantic partners.

According to Cosmopolitan, these fruits and vegetables have some potential capability of acting as aphrodisiacs.

Maca – a vegetable root that dates back to the days of the Inca nation of what is now modern day Peru, it is been called Peru’s natural Viagra, and it is thought to have a positive effect on stamina, energy, fertility, and libido.

Pumpkin – And you thought they were just for pie and Halloween decorations. Pumpkin is also an excellent source of fiber and potassium, both of which can help improve stamina, and magnesium, which has a calming effect on muscles and nerves.

Celery – contains small quantities of androstenone, a male pheromone that can enhance male attractiveness

Garlic – contains high amounts of allicin, a substance that plays a role in increasing blood flow and overall cardiovascular health. Yes, I know it can sour the human breath, may I suggest that both you and your partner consume garlic together? That’s what you call détente.

Pine nuts – an excellent source of zinc phytochemicals, and other health oils, all elements that can stimulate male libido.

Ginsing – this ancient herb has been used to treat sexual dysfunction and enhance sexual behavior in traditional Chinese medical practices. According to an article in the scientific journal Spermogenisis, “data from animal studies have shown a positive correlation among ginseng, libido, and copulatory performances, and these effects have been confirmed in case-control studies in humans.”

Apples — a 2014 study suggested that consuming an apple a day resulted in better sexual quality of life for young women.

Saffron – Cleopatra supposedly bathed in saffron-infused milk for its aphrodisiac qualities. Scientific studies have also shown that saffron can increase sperm motility in infertile men and decrease the negative sexual side effects of some antidepressant drugs. Hmm, I wonder now just what Donovan meant when he sang, “I’m just mad about saffron..”

Hot peppers – Capsaicin, the substance that gives peppers their heat, stimulates nerve endings on the tongue. This, in turn, causes the body to pump out epinephrine (adrenaline), which then causes the release of endorphins, then pleasure-causing body biochemical. So eat a Carolina reaper if you want to please and keep her!

Figs – Figs are high in amino acids, which, in addition to being necessary building blocks for our bodies to produce needed proteins, can also increase libido and boost sexual stamina.

Asparagus – The high levels of Vitamin E in asparagus may play a role in increasing oxygen and blood flow to the genitals. Asparagus is also high in potassium, which can boost sex hormone production.

These are just a few of the many fruits and vegetables which can improve sexual health and be a bodacious boost for a bedroom bonanza. Best of all you have everything to gain and nothing to lose by trying them. If you and your sweetie consume pumpkin soup with celery sticks for an appetizer, an asparagus casserole for dinner, and apples and figs for dessert, and nothing special happens, you’ll still be eating nutritious food that will enhance overall health with no side effects. It’s also a heck of a lot cheaper than Viagra!

Preserve That Harvest

DSCN5266

 

You can taste a little of the summer
My grandma’s put it all in jars

― Greg Brown

Congratulations! Your garden has yielded a bountiful crop of fresh, nutrient-rich sweet, and crunchy fruits and vegetables. You’ve eaten as many fresh vegetables as you can and shared some of the rest with family, friends, and maybe even your local food pantry. But even so, you still have plenty left over. It would be a shame if it went to waste. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to. There are ways that you can preserve these fruits and vegetables so that they can last throughout those bone-chilling winter months of cold, snow, and misery.

Canning – the process of using a combination of heat, acid, and salt to preserve fruits and vegetables in glass jars. Fruits and vegetables so preserved can last up to year in some instances.

Drying – the process of removing the moisture from foods, either through exposure to air, sunlight, or heat (either in your oven or a commercially-made dehydrator. Dried foods do not look as colorful and shiny as canned foods, but are still quite edible and contain more nutrients than do their canned counterparts. Note: before drying produce, it is important to blanch it first. Blanching is the process of heating food without cooking it. This step is important, because blanching inactivates the enzymes that cause food to spoil.

Freezing – the process of preserving food by storing in temperatures below zero, usually in a commercial freezer (not the freezer that comes with your refrigerator). While freezing does not stop the clock on food spoilage, it slows it down considerable by slowing the growth of microorganisms. Freezing is considered superior to all other methods of preservation in that the concentration of nutrients, as well as texture, color, and flavor is greater than that of food preserved by other preservation methods

Jams and jellies – Jams and jellies are the results of turning fruits, vegetables, and herbs into concentrated, sugar-rich spreads that can be added to toast, meats, or anything else your creative mind can think of.

Pickles, relishes, and chutneys – similar to canning, it’s the process of using heat, acid, salt, herbs, and spices to create spicy creations from your garden produce. While produce so preserved doesn’t exactly qualify as nutritious, they add a zing and a zest to more nutritious meals (think of a sandwich with a pickle on the side). As an aside, I have to give a shout-out to my friends Sue and Judy Lazar for the wonderful tomato chutney they make and for the fact that they always save a jar for me.

Vinegars and seasonings – Vinegar is made through the fermentation of fruit juices and grains. The combination of wine alcohol, oxygen, and acetobacters produce this tangy concoction that has been used throughout recorded history as a medicine, cosmetic, preservative, flavor-enhancer, cleanser, disinfectant, beverage, and digestive aid. You can combine a vinegar varieties such as balsamic, champagne, cider, malt, white rice, sherry, and wine with your own produce or herbs to create your own flavored vinegars.

Cold storage – placing produce in a cool dark environment (basement, window well, root cellar, etc.) with the proper amount of humidity to maintain as much as possible produce in its fresh form throughout the winter. This is probably the simplest form of food preservation.

So don’t let all that extra produce go to waste. Use one of the above methods to put it in a state where it will last through the winter. Then on those cold winter nights, you can pop open a jar, bottle, freezer pack, or cold-stored container to bring a little light of summer into an otherwise bleak season.

Be Thankful for the Results of Your Gardening Efforts

Gratitude

 

When the calendar turns over to November, our thoughts naturally turn over to the holiday of Thanksgiving. We’re all familiar with some of the history of the holiday. The harvest celebration at Plymouth Rock that took place among the settlers and the Indians is considered to be the first Thanksgiving. President George Washington then proclaimed the holiday in 1789. It was then made a federal holiday by President Abraham Lincoln as a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. President Franklin Roosevelt changed the date to one week earlier to the second to last Thursday of the month, and eventually this was codified into law.

Thanksgiving is one of the few holidays in which gifts are not needed. Just getting together with family and friends to celebrate out togetherness – laced, of course, with generous helpings of turkey, stuffing, and other delicious foods – is gift enough. And of course, in keeping with the nature of the holiday, we all try to think of things about which to be thankful.

As a gardener, you have much for which to give thanks.

Did you have a bountiful harvest with lots of fruits and vegetables which you ate fresh, canned, dried, or put into winter storage? Be thankful.
Did you successfully keep the critters and the insect pests from forcing you to share your harvest? Be thankful.
Were your fruit and vegetable plants free from disease? Be thankful.
Did you try some new cultivars this year that surprised you with their goodness? Be thankful, because you’ve expanded your tastes beyond the same old same old. Did those new cultivars disappoint? Be thankful, because now you know what doesn’t work in your garden.
Was your garden a complete failure? Be thankful, because at least you put forth the effort, and like the hopeful Chicago Cubs fan, you have your battle cry of “wait until next year.”

And just the fact that you got out in the fresh air and sunshine, stuck your hands in the dirt, and became one with the rhythms of nature adds up to a great deal for which to be thankful. You’re a gardener, and you have much to be proud of. So celebrate! Rejoice! And above all, give thanks!

If They Plant It, They’ll Eat It

Brassicas

Vegetables. We know they are good for our bodies – especially the bodies of growing children. But as any parent knows, getting children to eat vegetables is a task that makes the twelve labors of Hercules seem like a picnic in the park.

There are many ways to encourage children to eat vegetables – mixing them in other foods, spicing them up, leading by example and eating them yourself, etc. But perhaps one of the best ways to encourage kids to eat vegetables, is to get them involved with them from start to finish. And that means introducing your children to the wonderful world of gardening. Let them help you as you prepare the soil (what kid doesn’t love to play in dirt?), plant the seeds, and water the developing plants. Or better yet, allow your child to “sharecrop” a portion of your garden by giving them a space that’s theirs and theirs alone to plant whatever they wish. As the plant grows, the child’s excitement and interest will grow along with it. After all, they planted it and took care of it. Their pride is now at stake. When the time comes to harvest the rewards of their labors, the child will become even more proud and excited to see the fruit or vegetable that came into this world because of their efforts. And maybe – just maybe – they’ll be interested and intrigued enough to take a bite – or two – or more.

Look at it another way. Many children are rather wary when a strange person approaches them. Even if the person is known to their parents and the parents say it’s okay, the child may still be reluctant to approach this individual. In the same way, when we dump strange looking foods onto a child’s plate, they may be quite reluctant to eat it even though mom and dad say it’s okay. But a vegetable that they grew themselves becomes a known entity and not a stranger. A child may be more willing to eat something that’s known and familiar to them.

So if you want your children to eat their vegetables without a fuss, then get them involved in the growing process. Because gardening is the fuss-buster!

Your Waste is My Bread and Butter

poop equals bread and butter

Waste. The very word implies something that is unwanted or not needed. Call it leftovers, trash, byproducts, garbage – it all means the same thing – something left over from something else after all of the useful elements of that something else have been extracted.

What do we do with that waste? Well, most of the time, we discard it. We throw it away without a second thought and feel assured that it’s gone forever. Not so. As Mike Nowak, a Chicago radio gardening show host once stated, our planet is a closed system. Everything you discard still remains on Earth somewhere. There is no such thing as “away.”

Much of this waste also ends up back in our bodies, sometimes indirectly in the air we breathe or substances we absorb through our skin, but sometimes directly and by design. What do I mean by this? Allow me to elaborate.

What do we mix into our soil to help boost the growth of our vegetables? Manure. What is manure? You know good and well what it is. It’s POOP! Yes folks, cows and horses are excreting the unusable portions of the food they eat (a.k.a. poop) out of their butts. And we willingly collect it, dry it, spread it onto our vegetable gardens, grow vegetables, put those vegetables in our mouths, chew them up and swallow them. This is considered a good thing – and it is. But whether it’s via tomato road or jalapeño highway, in the end, we are still eating poop.

Nauseated yet? Well, to paraphrase that tune by the Carpenters, I’ve only just begun. Do you like cheese? You know how cheese is made, of course. Bacterial culture is added to milk, which causes the milk to separate into curds and whey. We then extract the whey, compress and age the curds, and that gives us cheese. But what do the bacteria do? Some bacteria is used to start the cheesemaking process. They will chew up the milk sugar (lactose), convert it to lactic acid, and excrete that lactic acid into the milk. The acid lowers the pH of the milk and creates the right conditions for coagulation of the milk. Other bacteria roam through the ripening curd, chew up the material inside and excrete salts and other acids. Well what is all this stuff that the bacteria are excreting? You can call it salt, acid, whatever pleases you. But bottom line, it is still waste product that the bacteria expel from their little bodies. In other words – bacterial poop! And we consume it with gusto!

Now I tell you all this not to disgust you. Well, maybe a little. Fine, I admit it. I’m rolling on the floor as I imagine the looks on all of your faces as you’re reading this! We all need a hobby, and I’m working mine. But all kidding aside, it’s important that we remember that food – real, honest to goodness food – does not spontaneously erupt from the shelves of your local grocer in neat and pretty packages. There is real work, effort, and ancient knowledge that goes into the development of that food long before it ever reaches the grocery store. To the urbanized eye, it is not all neat, pretty, and sweet-smelling. But without it, we would all have no choice but to eat the packaged, artificially created, chemically laden stuff that’s already a large part of most of our diets. And what those excuses for food can do to our bodies is a lot more disgusting than a little poop could ever be!

It Ain’t Over ‘Til You See the White of the Frost

old-windmill-at-sunset

 

By now, many of you are beginning to see the sun setting on the horizon of your gardening season. You’re beginning to think about (or perhaps have already started) harvesting the last of the fruits and vegetables, throwing away (or composting) the spent plants, enriching your soil with humus and compost, turning it all over and mixing it in, washing and putting away your tools, and calling it a season. And you can do that if you so desire. But gardening does not have to end just yet. There are still vegetables you can plant and get a final harvest before the frost sets in and the snow flies.

Remember the cool season crops you planted in the early spring? Well, guess what? They work equally well in the fall. Lettuce, spinach, brassicas (kale, mustard, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, etc.), and root crops (parsnip, leek, rutabaga, salsify, etc.) can all be grown in the fall. And should a light frost occur, it will have little or no effect, because these plants can take it. Frost actually improves the flavor of kale and parsnips. In addition, some root crops can be left in the ground over the winter months. So if you have a sudden hankering for parsnip leek soup in mid-February, just go out to the garden, dig up some parsnips and leeks, and brew yourself a feast. Note: please do not announce to your household that you are going out in the garden to take a leek.

Remember, gardening does not have to come to a screeching halt come fall. There’s still some life left in the growing season. Why not make the most of it?

All Together Now

 

On a few occasions I’ve been asked, “Mark, I know that you do both fruit and vegetable gardening and home cheeesemaking. Are those two distinctly separate topics, or can they work together?”

Most definitely, yes, they can work together! In fact, if you combine the two just right, you create wonderful foods that can enhance your dining experiences for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Here are some suggestions.

Salads – You can enhance a salad of homegrown garden greens by sprinkling it with some of your homemade Feta cheese. Or how about using your homemade Blue cheese to create your own Blue cheese dressing to pour on your salad?

Infusing cheese with herbs – When making your own cheese, how about creating something distinctive by mixing some herbs into the curds before putting those curds into your cheese press? Some typical herbed cheeses include Caraway Swiss and Havarti with Dill.

Incorporating vegetables into cheese – The sky is the limit when it comes to making vegetable infused cheeses. How about adding some sun-dried tomatoes to your homemade cream cheese? Or a cheddar cheese infused with finely-chopped onions?

Wine-infused cheeses – At first glance, this sounds off topic. What, you might ask, does making a wine-infused cheese have to do with incorporating fruits and vegetables into cheese? Well, if you grow the grapes yourself, make your own wine, and soak your newly-pressed cheese in the wine for a few weeks, then, in a roundabout way, you are combining fruit and cheese. And if you substitute vodka for the wine you now have infused your cheese with a potato byproduct.

“Gee Mark, I’m not sure about this,” you say. “This sounds rather unusual.” Well, I have a one word answer for you – experiment. Try different combinations of fruits, vegetables, and cheese. After all, that’s how new foods are discovered.

“But what if I create something that looks awful and tastes worse?” Seriously? What if you create something that looks pleasing, tastes even better, and wins Cheese of the Year? Isn’t that worth the risk of maybe creating something awful? And if the worst happens, and your Limburger with Brussels sprouts tastes like the inside of a garbage truck? Then you simply toss it away and try a different combination. No one has to know about it but you.

So go ahead. Experiment with different fruit-cheese-vegetable combinations. And embrace the results – good, bad, or otherwise!

At Ease Disease

bacterial-leaf-spot

Something is awry with your garden vegetables. They looked healthy enough a few days ago, but now the leaves are discolored and wilting. What could be wrong? After all, you’ve watered every day. Perhaps you’ve even given it some supplemental fertilizer. Yet it’s all for nought. Those vegetable crops are dying. What caused this to happen? The answer is simple. Disease. Just like the members of kingdom Animalia, the members of kingdom Plantae are also subject to the attacks of fungi, bacteria, nematodes, viruses, and mycoplasmas and all the havoc they wreak.

 
Diseases can be a serious problem in the vegetable garden. Disease-causing organisms can attack your seedlings and kill them before they emerge. They can also attack the stems, roots, and fruit of more mature crops. Left untreated, a bout of disease can devastate an entire crop.

 
All, however, is not lost. With proper care, diseases in your garden can be reduced or eliminated. The key is to stop disease before it starts, because once you notice visible symptoms, it’s already too late.

 
To prevent disease, keep in mind that for disease to have impact, three conditions must occur. First, the disease-causing organism must be present. Second, conditions must be right for the organism to infect, grow, and thrive. Lastly, the organism must find a home on a susceptible plant, e.g. a plant that is stressed, poorly cared for, or otherwise weakened. All you need to prevent disease infestation, therefore, is to take away any one of the legs from the disease stool. Then the disease cannot occur.

 
So how do you break the legs of the disease stool?

 
Crop rotation — Simply put, this means not planting the same vegetable crops in the same place in your garden year after year. Many diseases, such as clubroot and black rot (both of which affect Brassicas), can remain viable in the soil for at least seven years. So if you plant your kale, mustard, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, etc. in the same spot each year, you run the risk of repeatedly infecting your plants with these diseases. But if you move them to another part of the garden, then, you take away one of the legs (e.g. the susceptible plant) from the disease stool

 
Sanitation — This simply means practicing good garden hygiene. Some diseases can overwinter on infected plant parts. If you leave these laying around, then you run the risk of infecting your soil with these disease organisms, and then, by extrapolation, your plants. So clean up all spent plant parts at the end of the year. Clean up the weeds as well, because several diseases use weeds as their transfer agent. Lastly, if you smoke, don’t do it around your tomato plants. Tomatoes are susceptible to the tobacco mosaic virus, which can sometimes survive the tobacco-curing process. Touching your cigarette and then touching your tomato plants introduces the virus into your garden (e.g. leg number one of the disease stool). If growing conditions are right and the plants are stressed, then all is ripe for a mosaic blowout.

 
Water your garden in the morning or early afternoon — Watering in the early part of the day allows plenty of time for the sun and wind to dry wet leaves. Watering in the late afternoon or evening, especially in the early spring exposes the plant to cold and moisture — exactly the right kind of conditions for disease-causing fungus to develop (leg number two of the disease stool).

 
Leave adequate space between your plants — If plants are planted too close together, then the air circulation around them is reduced. Combine reduced air circulation with wet plants, and you’ve created a playground for the fungi (e.g. the proper conditions for disease to develop).

 
Plant vegetable plants at the proper time and at the right soil pH — Vegetable crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, or beans grow grow best in warm summer weather. Blueberries grow best at a soil pH of 5.0. If you attempt to plant tomatoes, cucumbers, and beans in the early spring, or if you try to grow blueberries when the soil pH is greater than 5.0, they will perform poorly. Just as you feel stressed if the weather is too warm or cold, plants will also feel stressed if the environment around them is wrong. And just as we humans are more susceptible to getting sick when you’re under stress, a plant is, likewise, more susceptible to the ravages of disease when they are under stress.

 
So if you want to keep your fruit and vegetable crops healthy and disease-free, then follow the old stage saying and “break a leg”. Break all three if you can, and you’ll never again have to experience the heartbreak of disease destroying your plants and making a mockery out of all your garden efforts.

broken-stool

How Sweet Is My Corn

Sweet Corn

 

Sweet corn. It just wouldn’t be summer without that roasted or boiled buttery sweet summer staple of a thousand picnics and family gatherings. But have you ever wondered what it is that makes sweet corn sweet, and how it differs from other kinds of corn?

 
Sweet corn is corn that is bred for sugary sweetness and harvested when the kernels are immature. As a result the interior of the kernel contains sugar instead of starch, giving the product a sweet taste. Hence, the name. But did you know, that even among sweet corn, there are different genotypes? Allow me to elaborate.

 
su or Sugary — This is the classic sweet corn. The kernels contain modest amounts of sugar in them which gives them a combination flavor of sugar and corn. When harvested, the sugar in su corn rapidly converts to starch, which decreases the sweetness. That’s why many sweet corn aficionados claim that the best way to cook sweet corn is to boil the water, run out into the garden, pick and shuck the corn, run back into the house, and toss it into the boiling water. This, they claim, gives the maximum amount of sweetness. Golden Bantam is an example of an su sweet corn.

 
se or Sugar Enhanced — se corn has higher levels of sugar in the kernel than su corn. su corn still rapidly converts to starch upon harvest, but it will stay sweet longer that se corn because of the elevated level of sugar. The kernel walls of se corn also are more tender than those of su corn, which further improves the eating quality. se varieties are also hybrids, so you cannot save the seeds for next year’s planting. Examples of se cultivars include Kandy Corn, Bodacious, and Silver Queen.

 
sh2, shrunken 2, or Supersweet — The amount of sugar in the endosperm of sh2 corn is even higher than that of su or se corn. The higher levels of sugar and lack of starch gives the seeds a wrinkled or shrunken appearance, hence the name. Conversion of sugar to starch is even slower than in su and se corn, so there’s a longer window between harvest and preparation. sh2 corn germinates poorly or not at all in cold wet soil. sh2 varieties must also be isolated from su and se corn; cross pollination with sh2 can ruin their flavor and quality. And like se corn, they are hybrids, so the seed cannot be saved for the following year’s planting. Examples of sh2 cultivars include Early Xtra-Sweet, Northern Xtra Sweet, and Illini Xtra Sweet.

 
So which variety of sweet corn is right for you? Once again, this goes back to the planning we discussed in my last blog post. Do you harvest your corn and cook it later? If so, then I recommend one of the se or sh2 varieties. If you believe in roasting or boiling your corn seconds after harvest, then try one of the su varieties.

 
Congratulations! You’ve just received several kernels of knowledge. I just hope I haven’t caused any corn-fusion.