Speckled Romans

This is the first year I’ve grown Speckled Romans. I’ve tried Red Zebra before (which is a round red stripey tomato), and I wasn’t impressed with the flavor (though they looked gorgeous).

These lovelies have both gorgeous looks and great flavor. Definitely will be getting a re-run in my gardens in years to come.

 

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The Insistence of Abundance

I left the house three nights ago after picking something like five pounds of tomatoes over the previous couple of days. No big deal. Brought a few with me, distributed a few more, left a couple in a bowl on the counter.

A day and a half later when I returned, there were thirty pounds ripe in the gardens.

Last Friday and Saturday, I harvested eggplant. There are six bushes out there–not a lot, really. I never expect too much of eggplant in such a northerly clime. Except that this year, the plants are over three feet tall and about as wide–and there were forty good-sized fruits ready to go–and that’s in addition to the dozen or so I’d previously picked, and the dozens and dozens more still sizing up on the monstrous plants.

I congratulated myself when I used up half on a pickled Italian eggplant recipe and gifted most of the rest to a thankful friend.

And then I picked twenty more yesterday. My chiles are likewise enormous and exploding with fruit despite having been feasted on by rabbits every time they grew a new set of leaves this spring (that is, until the neighbor’s cat demonstrated its place in the food chain), and then there’s the summer squash…well, that’s definitely living up to the cliché.

The only reason I haven’t resorted to scouting for open car windows or unattended porches late at night is because the varieties I grow are unusual enough to make the culprit obvious. And god knows what I’d get back in addition to my squash–probably a Sidump’r full of zucchini secreted in my garage when I went on an errand.

It’d turn into something like the cucumber war a fellow farmers market vendor and I had going a couple of years ago. I didn’t dare leave my stand for fear I’d end up with fifty more cukes than I’d brought–and I’d brought a LOT. There’s more than one reason it pays to check out what varieties your fellow farmers are bringing to market. You start to think they’re breeding in the baskets–but when the children look nothing like the parent–you know something unsavory is going on…

This is the time of year when food gets pushy. You can’t turn around without tripping over a basket of peppers or a lug of peaches, and the house and gardens are lush with the insistent perfume of perfectly ripe produce–produce that, in its perfection, cries out, “Preserve me now or lose me forever!”

How can you resist?

And yet how can you give every peach, every pepper, every luscious tomato and milky ear of corn its due? How can you tuck every last little pickle in the brine when every time you turn around, there are ten more crying on the vines?

And then, just as you are looking around at the empty boxes and bushels and nodding and thinking you’ve got on top of the work at last, you turn around to see that one of the kids (kids! yes–you have them, don’t you remember?–and friends, too–who, you imagine, are leisurely chatting with your other friends on their lovely, breezy deck overlooking the lake, admiring their automatically-watered flower gardens, and asking after you before one of them makes that little circle next to their temple and they all laugh and forget you)–one of the kids left the back door open again, and a cooler of green beans and a basket of muskmelons (already attracting fruit flies!) have somehow snuck in to demand your immediate attention.

Your mother’s and grandmothers’ voices start to lecture in your brain–waste not, want not!–and something about starving children in China.

You start to feel faint and realize that you yourself haven’t had a bite to eat all day because eating now might take time from preserving all this food to eat then (whenever then is–you imagine yourself about five months from now splayed out on the couch with a pot of tea, a plate of scones, and a jar of that peach preserves now bubbling on the stovetop–perusing next year’s seed catalogs for ever-more productive varieties).

ENOUGH.

Go fix yourself a snack–maybe a dollop of that preserves out of the pot and a few musty crackers from the cupboard (if you can get to it)–whatever you can scrape up in a moment or two. Walk away from the pots and the kettles and the canners and the crates of insistent abundance.

Go outside into late summer’s luminous sunshine and lie on the hammock. Or the grass. Or sit in a deck chair. A glass of chilled white wine will do you good. Eat a few bites. Breathe in–taste air that is not clouded with endless steam and the cooking odors of every fruit and vegetable in existence.

Relax.

Relax a little more.

Now get up, take one more breath–this one of resolve–and get back inside and scrub out that crock.

The cucumbers are breeding again.

Three Inch Rain

I was chatting with my neighbor, Wayne, this morning as I surveyed the garden for signs of drought stress after yesterday’s nearly 100-degree heat. We haven’t had rain to speak of in weeks.

Flooding the Tomato Forest

Wayne told me a guy down the block claimed they’d had a three-inch rain the other morning.

“How the heck could you have a three inch rain when we got almost nothing?” Wayne asked.

“Well,” the neighbor said. “We got a drop. And then we got another drop three inches away.”

New Potatoes

I haven’t watered my potato patch but once this season–and then only a few days ago, when I realized that the end of our stretch of extreme heat wasn’t going to give us any rain.

I never got the red potatoes in at all, so all I have is three rows of German Butterballs and two rows of Austrian Crescent fingerlings.

Fingerlings don’t make good “new” or early-harvested potatoes in my experience–you really have to wait for the plants to die down to get tubers of any reasonable size. Then, when they are ready to harvest, their thin skins and tender flesh make them kind of similar to a new potato anyhow.

But they’re not ready now.

Thankfully, the German Butterballs are. They are a yellow-fleshed heirloom variety similar to a Yukon Gold. Yum!

There is no messing about digging in the hills, filching potatoes from underneath live plants like eggs from under a setting hen. If I’m going to have new potatoes, I just go ahead and dig out one whole plant. That way, I’m not disturbing the roots of several plants.

I don’t know if filching potatoes makes much difference to a growing plant, but it just seems to me that it would–even if only a little. It’s a common practice though, so if you have a preference in your own potato patch, do what thou will.

Digging the whole plant also gives me a sense of how well the variety is doing in the rest of the row–if there is a good mess of potatoes under a plant, I expect a better harvest from the row than if I only get a couple measly tubers.

New potatoes have more sugar and less starch than storage (full grown) potatoes. They also have more vitamin C, though I assume a lot of that cooks away. And speaking of cooking–new potatoes are done a lot faster than a full-grown potato. It’s easy to overcook them if you’re not paying attention.

The “B-sized” red potatoes that show up in the supermarkets around this time of year are really not “new” potatoes. New potatoes are special–their thin skins and tender flesh mean they don’t ship well, and they spoil/turn starchy quickly. Find a local farmer or visit your local farmers market if you want the real deal, and cook them as soon as you can.

Most sources say new potatoes are ready to harvest as soon as the plant flowers. I usually wait a bit longer–my potatoes have been flowering for over a month now, and to my mind, the size of the potatoes I’ve got now is just about right.

How to fix them? I say the simpler the better. Steamed with just a little water, or roasted in the oven with nothing but salt, pepper, butter, and maybe just a little parsley. Butter is pretty important in my mind, but use oil if you must. You can toss them alongside a roast for the last half hour of cooking, too.

Whatever you do, save the heavier seasonings for your full-sized potatoes this fall and winter, and savor the bare, earthy flavor of these tender, early gems!

Building in Resilience

First rain–a lot of it at once. Now it’s dry again.

When I raked and shaped the raised beds in my new gardens here, I got a lot of questions about what I was doing and why. And, if I know my western Minnesota well enough by now, for every voiced question, there are ten who drive by and think, “what the heck is she doing?”–but never actually stop and ask.

Based on my own observations about the soil here, as well as my neighbor’s comments about the back lot being poorly drained, this is what I was preparing for:

In the process of raking up these beds, I incorporated a lot of the organic matter into them, and even with the two-inch deluge, there was very little erosion off these mounds. Had the garden been level, the plants would have been sitting in muck, their roots starving for oxygen.

Now that it’s dry out, the plants are still doing well–the clay soil holds water well, and there’s still plenty of moisture deep in the mounds. The tomatoes have really taken off!

Before that series of storms, I planted the lower part of this same garden with a buckwheat cover crop. I thought about trying to build more beds and plant more vegetables, but I’ve been busy enough to know my time limitations for garden work.

Thick-sown, fast-growing buckwheat makes a good weed-suppressing summer cover, and its heart-shaped leaves (and later white blooms) are really pretty! I’ll let it bloom for a bit before I cut it down for mulch–giving bees more reason to hang around the garden while the other crops are blooming.

As I mow the lawn, I’ve been adding more mulch to these gardens. I’m not sure I have my system just right at this point, but I’m laying the fresh clippings in the aisles to dry down and then raking them up on the mounds to help preserve moisture.

The yellow storage onions got weeded and the aisles mulched in the last couple of days as I mowed various areas of the lawn. I’ve been trying to split up the mowing into a rotation–some areas are lusher than others and need more frequent attention, and I also try not to mow down all the clover blossoms at one time in order that the bees stick around.

At some point in the season, I’m hoping to have all the bare ground covered. The natural state of soil is to be covered–so you can take your pick if it’s going to be mulch, plants you want, or weeds you don’t.

The spring-sown cover crop is still going strong in the other garden, and instead of tilling it under, I’m mowing and cutting every couple of weeks–keeping it in a sort of living mulch that is also fixing lots of nitrogen thanks to the vetch and what’s left of the field peas. But I’ve cleared a few small spaces to make room for beans and squashes.

I should probably not jinx myself by saying this, but last year across town, the rabbits took every one of my beans. This year, I haven’t protected these Gold of Bacau plants, but they haven’t been plundered. There is a rabbit living under one of my sheds, but apparently she has different tastes–the only damage I found after a brief getaway last weekend was my shallots had their tops eaten off.

I wonder if that means the rabbit is French, and/or the meat is pre-seasoned? Maybe I should leave a glass of wine out there, too, but I don’t really want to encourage her.

Another hopefully-success this year is that I finally have some decent-looking Fish pepper plants. I have been intrigued by this variety for some time now, but their germination is not always great, and I’ve had many die or never come up. This must be a magical year!

The plants are pretty with their variegated foliage, and the peppers are supposedly stripey as well. This is an heirloom used in crab shacks on the East Coast–their spicy and fruity flavor is reputedly excellent with fish and other seafood. While we’re distant from the ocean, I do have some local fisherman friends who might appreciate these (and might therefore invite me over for fish fry!).

Here’s to a bountiful growing season!