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Monday, September 27, 2010

Ahhhh, Blueberries! And don't neglect the Amazing Aronia....

My favorite bush fruit as far as taste is concerned is the Blueberry.  Burnt Ridge Nursery has a good selection.  I have quite a few that bloom in succession to keep me in blueberries from mid June until nearly frost.  Some early blueberries I like include Misty (evergreen), and one I have down as Jersey which is usually considered late.   Some midseason blueberries I like are Blueray, Sunshine Blue (evergreen) which goes on into the late season, and Berkeley and Herbert, which are both tall with lots of big berries.  Legacy (evergreen) is tall and mid-late.  The evergreen bushes have fruit with a slightly different and perhaps even more delicious taste. 

Brunswick Lowbush Blueberries make a nice groundcover on a slope and have small berries over a long period of time.

Evergreen blueberries are among my favorites.  They don't lose their leaves in the winter but they do have lovely red and orange fall color- the branches are going sideways...

Sunshine Blue, one of my favorites, can get insanely loaded with berries-

I also really like Aronia melanocarpa 'Viking'; if you look up the ORAC (Oxygen Reactive Absorbance Capacity) value of Aronia, it is amazing.

It is higher than the value for Acai, a berry that sells for high prices, but you could grow Aronia in your back yard and enjoy even higher health benefits.  The variety Nero is similar to Viking but smaller, and there is a dwarf form that is smaller still.  Of all the berries I grow, Aronia are the easiest and most productive to harvest.  My two bushes are loaded every year, and the berries are formed in clusters hanging from one stem, all berries in the cluster and on the entire bush ripening at once, unlike blueberries which must be harvested so carefully since the green berries can break off with the ripe ones, so harvesting is as simple as snapping off the clusters into a bag, then I can sit around indoors and pull the berries off the stems and put 
them into freezer bags at leisure.

I get enough to have them last all year and beyond.  My son convinced me to overlook the slight puckery quality of the skins and seeds, and eat them raw with yogurt or Stevia-sweetened whipping cream, so now I put them raw on our fruit salad with yogurt and have come to enjoy the raw taste and save myself the work of cooking and straining to make Stevia-sweetened gelatin out of them, which is how I used to eat them.

The American diet is lacking in antioxidants, being well below the recommended 5000 units a day, but the Aronia berries can help greatly in reaching that amount, as well as adding spices such as Cinnamon, Cloves, and Ginger to your daily diet and using raw or dried herbs such as Basil, Oregano, and Rosemary in salads and cooked foods.  All of these are fantastically high in antioxidants.  Normal wear and tear from exercise, stress, pollutants, pesticides, and poor diet can increase the reactive free radicals in the body, which do oxidative damage to cells and cause inflammation and disease, wrinkles and ageing, and are implicated in heart disease, DNA damage, diabetes, and cancer.  Antioxidants can reduce the amounts of free radicals in the body and protect the heart, joints, and cell membranes from damage.  So, before you spend your hard-earned money on some Acai or other expensive imported fruit, consider growing the native and underappreciated Aronia berry.


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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Brassicas- Edible, Ornamental, Vital

Brassicas, formerly known as Cruciferae because of their 4-petalled flowers, are a very useful edible group of plants.  They encompass many edible plants like broccoli, mustard greens, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, collards, turnips, Chinese Bok Choy, and so on.  Many important oil-producing plants are in this family.  They also tend to have a pungent taste, as in the mustard greens and seeds, and cress.  Nasturtium officinale is watercress, an introduced plant, and of course regular flowering Nasturtiums are widely grown, having large seed that is very easy to germinate and edible flowers and leaves. 

But there are also other ornamental plants in this group that can also have some edible functions though little-used for that.  An example is Lunaria annua, really a biennial, which is one of those plants ideally suited to growing on the west coast of the US where there is a wet season in fall, winter, and spring and a dry season in summer.  Like many other biennials (dandelions, Forget-Me-Nots, etc), the seeds will sprout with the fall rains and grow all winter, and the plant will bloom in spring, and ripen its seeds before the dry summer weather hits.  Lunaria's name comes from the translucent central disk left in the seed pod when the outer layers are carefully removed, and makes lovely shiny round orbs reflecting light for dried arrangements.  It is also called Money Plant.  But it turns out it also has edible qualities.  The early leaves can be eaten, with a slightly hot taste, and the roots are edible before flowering.  The seeds can be ground with cold water like mustard seeds to make a mustard substitute.  Lunaria can happily self-sow every year and return dependably every spring.  It prefers partly shady spots, and while usually purple, is also found with white blooms.  The leaves are attractively heart-shaped with scalloped edges.

White Lunaria
I am growing another similar plant this year that is a perennial or biennial.  It is called Fibigia clypeata, and has fuzzy silver leaves in a basal rosette,
Fibigia rosette
then sends up bloom stalks later that have small yellow flowers, and make oval seed pods that, like Lunaria, lose the outer covers to reveal a silvery translucent inner layer.   Here they had to be tied up from flopping.

Seed pods

When saving seed from another Brassica, Arugula, I was noticing it also has a translucent inner layer, though it is small enough to not be very decorative; however, I am trying some in a small vase.  Arugula is known as a spicy salad addition to add interest to a green salad, but also makes a tasty pesto with a little bite, sauteed briefly with garlic and ground smooth in a food processor.  It is also good added raw to a pizza, or cooked briefly with pasta with added riccotta or other cheese.

Many of the Brassicas are quite cold-hardy, and can be grown in a zone 8 garden in the winter.  My experience has been that the plant needs to attain sufficient size by frost to withstand the cold temperatures, so I have a deadline of July 15 to get some planted that I want to make it through the winter.  Some good choices are Wild Red Kale, collards, over-wintering types of broccoli, and turnips, which can overwinter and make early spring greens. 

I like to cut the leaves in early spring as well as the flower buds which are similar to broccoli heads but smaller. 

Many of the Brassicas, especially the fast-maturing Chinese greens, bolt quickly in spring but will last longer in fall, and grow better in the cool fall temperatures.  Bok Choy can make nice big plants at this time of year.  I direct-sowed mustard greens, Arugula, turnips, and several kinds of Chinese greens July 12 and in one month's time they were making nice greens that were ready to pick- shown here at 6 weeks, with runner beans on the left and cucumbers on the right. 

I often just remove the outer leaves but when plants are crowded I harvest the whole plant.  The white stems are crisp and sweet.  They can be boiled, or sauteed with onions, mushrooms, and garlic.  And I belong to the Garfield School of Cooking- EVERYTHING is improved by cheese.

There are a few ornamental plants in the Brassica family that are familiar, like the Wallflower, Erysimum.  They have not persisted well for me, but I had one this spring with a delightful fragrance, and I may try them from seed next year.  Iberis or Candytuft is an annual or perennial used frequently as a ground cover or rock garden plant.  The plant is liked by pollinating insects and also has medicinal uses.  Lobularia maritima, Sweet Alyssum, is used frequently as a border plant or edging and has a sweet honey-like scent, and attracts bees and butterflies.   Matthiola, or Stock, is an annual, or sown in the fall, a biennial, noted for its sweet fragrance and pastel colors.  It is used as a bedding plant and has flowers in spikes.

There are also native wildflowers in the Brassica family.  Those found in Washington state are listed here-
One is Rockcress, Arabis, which comes in a variety of colors and sizes; some are used in rock gardens.  To look at the list, select Families then Brassica on the left.  Cardamine hirsuta is a common weed that shoots seeds into your face when they are ripe.  Some other Cardamines are nice ornamentals and can be eaten as a cress.  It is easy to start identifying Brassicas after looking through the entries.

One introduced Brassica that is a nasty weed is Garlic Mustard, Alliaria petiolata, on many weed lists.

The edible Brassicas that overwinter are also useful as an early spring flower for a pollen and nectar source for pollinators and beneficial insects.  I let them go to seed, even though that ties up some of my beds past the earlier planting times.  The more such plants one grows in the garden, the more beneficial insects are present to act as predators and pollinators and keep the insect population in the garden in balance.  My farmer neighbor had no apples one year but my two favorite trees (Liberty and Freedom) were loaded, even though it was raining for most of the apple blossom season.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Tragedy Strikes in the Squash Patch

Well, what can I say.  Mature squash plants are lying there turning yellow and shriveling up, their stems bitten through at the ground.  Win a few, lose a few.  Sob.

There can't have been much nutrition in the few inches of stalk eaten, it must have been more like, "I don't like this thing growing here in my space!"  At least I have the satisfaction of seeing a few vole carcasses or even just the heads lying around left by the cats.  I'm not a cat lover but appreciate them when I see their efforts.  My special revenge is to put the corpses in the tops of vole or mole holes to make it particularly unappetizing for them to use that run again. 

The cats do seem to be leaving the garter snakes alone now, so I can see some in parts of the yard that seem to live there now.  I call them fruit flavors depending on the colors of the stripes on their backs, like "Strawberry Kiwi", "Raspberry", or "Lemon".  Snakes and other helpful wildlife can be encouraged and protected from cats by creating some shelters around the yard, like strategically placed piles of branches or brush, tarps laid out on the ground, or deep ground covers.  I even was surprised to see a lizard again after several years of not seeing any, a Gerrhonotus or Alligator lizard.

Here's what the squash, mostly Crookneck, which are divine eating, very nutty taste and excellent texture when picked young, look like when growing happily.  I have had very good success with the variety sold by Lily Miller.

For some reason the voles went after all 3 of my winter squash which were vigorously climbing some trellis and setting on fruits-

At least my endeavors to protect my pole beans are working in part, see my other post on voles-
  Here is a happy combination of Insuk's Wang Kong (IWK) Runner beans and Grandma Robert's Purple Pole beans (GRPP), which are the fastest pole beans to produce that I grow, they were selected for late planting.

The hummingbirds really like the red flowers, and runner beans are more adapted to cool summers so will start producing earlier and keep on going later than regular pole beans.  I'm experimenting in another bed with interplanting GRPP with Gopher Purge, Euphorbia lathyrus.  I didn't wrap the stems with foil but none have as yet been bitten off.    However this bed did not grow beans last year, though it did have cucumbers in that space.

The beans have done well so far, I picked 41 oz today from the 25' here and the 10' in the photo above with IWK.

More vole damage, they hollowed out a Lemon cucumber but strangely left a green cucumber right next to it alone.

They also don't seem to bother mustard greens at all.  Greens must be planted before July 15 here to get big enough to live through the winter, but will get big enough to eat now in only a month from sowing, like the ones shown here.  Beans I thought were bush beans turned out to be pole beans and required some bamboo poles to climb on, but even in the tangle of greens many of the pole beans have been nipped off by the voles and are wilting.

Here are the mustard greens planted out around July 12 and now large enough to pick,

Runner beans are on the left, greens with some pole beans in the middle, and a really nice cucumber, NC (North Carolina) Pickle, on the right, which made a lot of vines and has really been pumping them out.  I like to get the cucumbers up off the ground on a cattle panel or in this case some supplemental bamboo poles as well.

There is also damage in the tomatoes.  In this case I think it is mostly from the moles who love it when I dig a planting hole and put manure in it; the soil is so lovely and loose, and worms must like the manure, so they tunnel up under many or most of my tomatoes.  Not many of the plants actually seem to suffer, but some whose roots are damaged or exposed to too much air underground do-
Poor shriveled Gogosha, the sadder because it was my best yielder last year.  When I go down the row and water with a strong hose pressure, the water makes a rushing sound down the holes like it is going over a waterfall into China!

Legend, from seed by Ed Hume, is doing well and even getting ripe.  It is supposed to be resistant to late blight, and has a nice blemish-free round tomato with a sprightly flavor.

Well, the battle continues.  I am planning to try some sneaky home remedies on the voles soon, I don't know if I will be able to tell if they work.  We got record rainfall today, the most rain in one hour EVER (I assume in recorded weather data keeping).   It didn't seem so much to me, I grew up in Houston.  If it rained a lot there, people rowed boats around on the streets and the crawdads in the 10' roadside drainage ditches were happy.  My recurring childhood nightmare was to get up to sharpen my pencil in my flooded schoolroom and step inadvertently into the open mouth of an alligator, brought on by my brother keeping a snapping turtle in his room.;-)   I am so happy to have my nice toasty tomato house up to keep them high and dry.;-)  See-
I eliminated the sagging this year by putting welded wire and chicken wire in the roof to support the plastic.  And with so many green tomatoes, the baskets full of tomatoes I normally get may soon be here, and the smell of tomato sauce simmering on the stove or in the crock pot.


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Chilly Green Tomatoes Get a House

This year has been good for vegetable production for the most part, especially the squash, cucumbers, beans, and mustard greens.  But tomatoes have been very slow because of the long period of cold wet weather in June and July.  So I just finished a plastic hot house to warm them up.  I start my tomatoes under lights in January, using small ziplock bags with a piece of wet paper towel inside to start the seeds, which must then be taken out and transplanted to a small pot after they have sprouted and grown a root.  I use Anderson Die and Manufacturing Co. rose pots, which are 2 1/4" squares and 3 1/4" tall.  They are nice because they fit 4 x 9 into the common black plastic flats sold at Fred Meyer and other outlets.  The flats fit 2 per shelf on metal shelves available at hardware stores, and a three-shelf unit can hold 2 shelves of flats with 4' fluorescent fixtures suspended from the shelves above = 144 pots.

Tomato seedlings in Rose pots

The chains to the right come with the fluorescent fixtures and can be hooked into holes in the vertical posts of the shelves.  I make some plant markers out of cut up milk cartons.  After the plants reach the lights, at about 11" tall, they are ready to plant outdoors.  I  checked 30 year weather reports and found that lows are typically above 32* F around April 15, but only 2-3 degrees lower on April 1, so I start planting out in early April under TunLCovers I have bought from the manufacturer or from Gurney's.  They are double-walled and have kept tomatoes safe through snows and frosts.  They are 18" tall and wide with metal ribs that push into the ground.


TunLCovers drying soil

The really great thing about the tunnels is that they keep the soil dry underneath them, so I put then out a couple of weeks before time to plant and use them to dry the ground enough to plant, since working wet soil is destructive to soil structure. So I just have to wait for a day with a few hours of dry weather to get some planting done. 

Tomatoes, planted 2 rows on the left, one on the right because of space constraints, T-posts already present.

Since I have problems with moles liking freshly dug earth to come up to the surface next to the plants, I loosen up only enough soil to plant the tomato, around a shovel depth and 12" or so wide.   I put rabbit manure in the bottom of the hole along with some lava rock to make it a little scratchy for the moles and voles to dig there, and then mix in some compost, glacial rock dust, lime, and mycorrhizal fungi with the soil when planting.   I try to get the plant as deep as possible in the hole since tomatoes will root all along the stem where covered with soil.  For several years I have been trialing lots of tomatoes, like 60-90 varieties per year of mostly heirlooms, so I have planted them 18" apart in the row and double rows 18" apart to get lots of plants in.   I then run wires down the rows from T-posts with crosspieces to make 2 rows per post.  I space out tomato cages at intervals to help support the wires so they don't sag, and at the higher second level I use bamboo stakes, usually more than one per plant, which are also fastened to the wire and help hold it up.  I then have to spend time tying up tomato vines to the bamboo and wires.

But this year I decided to plant fewer tomatoes, my best 13 varieties from last year's trials, and have them 36" apart.  I also tried building tomato cages out of PVC pipe, then decided to build a roof structure to hold up plastic film to make a temporary warm structure to hopefully boost production and prevent late blight by keeping rain off the tomatoes, since rain splashes mold spores up on the plants and gets it started.  I got the ribs done-

Then rain was expected the next day so I got the plastic on as well, and after experiencing a lot of problems last year with it blowing off since it was put on lengthwise, 10' wide, and didn't come down all the way, I ran it across this year and all the way to the ground so the wind can't get under it as well.

Finished tomato house

It will take some storms and high winds to see how it does this year.  It should keep the temperature much warmer at night and hopefully speed ripening, which has been very slow this year because of the cold spring and the cold night tempertures.  Verna's Orange Oxheart did yield 14 oz, 10 oz, and 10 oz tomatoes for earliest large tomatoes.  Other tomatoes I'm growing are Bloody Butcher, Gogosha, Japanese Black Trifele, Jetsetter, Juliet F2, Legend, Marvel Striped, Nepal, NoID round one I call Perfect 10, Plum Giant Ukraine, Roughwood Gold, and Sochulak.  There are lots of green tomatoes so hopefully soon enough for some tomato sauce.

From the top clockwise- Gogosha, Jetsetter, Black Sea Man, Herman's Yellow, Nepal, center Verna's Orange Oxheart.  Happy Labor Day!