Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Tale of Two Kales

Actually, I told part of the story in the previous post. My curly kale made it though our drop to Very Cold Temperatures undamaged, but the Red Russian ended up with some bleaching on the older leaves. There is more to know, though, about these two crops.

The purple-stemmed Red Russian, according to my seed catalogs (which I finally have had a chance to look through!), should grow to be fairly large, 18-30 inches in height, but I haven't seen it get bigger than the lower end of that range so far. However, we may be eating it faster than it can grow! Most of the catalogs seem to indicate that this kale is more cold-hardy than it turned out to be in my North Georgia garden.

The other kale that I grew this year is the Vates dwarf blue curled. If I had realized how truly dwarf it would be, I would have spaced the plants closer together. I'm ordering seeds for a larger curled kale to grow next, because I want bigger leaves.

Both of these kale varieties taste good to me, but they are definitely different. Leaves of the Red Russian are MUCH more tender and taste sweeter to me. The Vates dwarf curled has tougher leaves; for salad, I chop them very small and let them stand in the dressing for a couple of hours before attempting to eat the them.

Even though they are dwarf, the curliness means that there is more actual leaf for their size than for the Red Russian, so it takes fewer leaves to fill my salad bowl. Mixing the two kinds of kale in one salad, though, makes it lovely to behold and even better to eat.

For both, even though many gardeners say that kale tastes the same when grown right through the summer, the catalogs agree that kale tastes better when grown in cold weather. The cold prompts the plant to store more sugars in the leaves as protection against freezing (sugar-water freezes at a lower temperature than plain water).

I talked with a friend today, though, who really doesn't like kale, even when it is winter-grown. Since she is an outgoing person who hangs out with gardeners and since kale is so very popular right now, she is faced with many-a bowl full of kale, prepared one way or another.

She is a good sport and eats the kale even when she'd rather not, but for other gardeners, the ease of growing such a nutritious, mild-flavored vegetable that stands in the garden through the winter makes it easy to include some in the winter garden. The only question for those gardeners will be which one, or several, to grow.

Monday, January 19, 2015

After the Big Freeze...

It's been well over a week since the Big Freeze (when the temperature dropped to around 12 degrees F), but I only just today worked up the nerve to look under the covers in my garden, to check on the broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower. The results of my efforts to protect my crops were mixed.

In the good news category, the unharvested broccoli under the heaviest cover looks amazingly good. I am hoping that growth will continue and I'll be able to harvest heads that are larger than 2 inches diameter (the size they are now). The cabbages under the thinner cover also look good, but under both weights of covers all the cauliflower -- the least hardy of the group -- have died. The few remaining broccoli under the thinner cover didn't completely die, but the flowering heads that I had been hoping to eat were damaged beyond saving.

For the plants left uncovered by anything but hope, outcomes also were mixed. Some outer leaves of the collards and red kale were bleached by the cold, but those bleached leaves are not wilted, and the newer, inner leaves look fine. The curly kale and the carrots appear to be completely undamaged. The spinach looks fine, the parsley and cilantro have some limp-looking leaves among the healthier ones, but all the leaves on all the radishes and beets have turned mushy.

I pulled up the dead plants, but beyond that I haven't done any real work in the garden today, because we have taken this three-day weekend to rearrange the garage.  All of my physical work has been given over to shifting shelves, boxes, tools, the rabbits and their enclosures, bins of toys and household stuff, and more, to make a working space for Joe to build a boat.

We have been in this house for a long time, and the garage had been full of the accumulated stuff of life in the suburbs while raising two boys, so thinning out and rearranging has been a big job. Finishing the job will take more than one long weekend, really, but while Joe is working out which of his final two choices of boat to build, we are busy making room for the project.

Otherwise, my big task for the weekend has been to order some seed potatoes. Last year I was unable to find any Irish Cobbler potatoes for planting, so this year I made sure to order them early.




Sunday, January 11, 2015

Thinking About Seeds

Last Thursday I spoke about Planning for Seed Saving for the local Master Gardener group, then the next day I gave an open-to-the-public "Lunch & Learn" presentation about Vermicompost, and on Monday, I will be talking about Organic Gardening for the Marietta Garden Club.

This may all sound disconnected and crazy (and maybe like I'm some kind of amazing sucker for saying "yes" to three requests for different topics so close together); however, in my mind, this all ties together in a way that makes total sense.

As I plan my garden for the year, in working out when to plant which varieties to allow for my little efforts at seed-saving, having the information fresh in my mind from giving the talk is a huge help. I will be starting seeds in February for some crops, and my vermicompost will come in handy at that time.

There are two main streams of thought when it comes to starting seeds. One is that you should use a completely sterile starting mix to minimize the risk of damping off as the seedlings develop; the other is that you should use a starting mix with so many beneficial microorganisms that they out-compete the damping off fungus. Also, I've run across a few studies that indicate that mixing as much as 20% by volume of vermicompost with the usual seed-starting medium actually enhances seed germination and seedling vigor.

I'm running with that second group for most of my seed starting this year (although I will still have some of those Jiffy Pellet seed-starting sets in my office, for demonstration purposes). The vermicompost that I have harvested from my little worm bin will come in handy as I begin to set up my flats for spring seeds.

Supporting beneficial microorganisms within the soil community is key to organic gardening. When I transplant those seedlings that got their start in an environment that is rich in microbial life, my organically-managed garden can only benefit.

I'm looking forward to the last of these three getting-ready-for-gardening talks!

As a bonus, along the way, I've had the joy of hanging out with many other gardeners, three work-days in a row, exchanging ideas as we all gear up for spring.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Seed Saving Surprise

I gave a presentation on "Planning for Seed Saving" last night to my county's Master Gardeners  -- some of my most favorite people! Among other things, I talked about legal issues (patented seeds) and biological aspects that can affect choices gardeners might make about saving seeds from their own crops to replant in subsequent years.

One aspect of the process that I mentioned is removing plants that are showing undesirable traits from the garden, to keep those plants from cross-pollinating with the other plants that have traits you want.

If the plants with less desirable traits flower and pollinate the "good" plants, then those less-good traits likely will appear in your next generation of the crop.  Removing "rogue" plants helps keep the next generation of the crop productive and wonderful, so this practice makes total sense.

However, even when we are trying to maintain a variety with its original traits, in selecting which seeds to save for the next crop, we sometimes make choices that change it anyway!

After the talk, one of my seed-saving friends shared her experience with a Southern pea she'd been saving and replanting. Each year, she'd saved "the prettiest" seeds from the crop to replant. After about a decade of saving pretty seeds, she found the original packet that she'd started with, and it had seeds in it.

She dumped out the seeds and found -- in a grand surprise -- that they looked very different from the seeds she'd saved from this summer's crop of what was supposed to be the exact same variety!

Gardening is never boring.




Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Southern Vegetables

There's a reason Bob Wills' song "That's What I Like About the South" includes turnip greens, black eyed peas, candied yams, buttered beans, and corn bread. The basis for each of those foods grows reliably and well here. The cool-weather vegetable in that list, turnip greens, is almost a fool-proof crop. However, there are plenty of crops that are less reliable producers in Southern gardens.

In years like this one, when my broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbages all are slow to head up, I remind myself that such Northern vegetables can't be expected to do consistently well in the South. Some years the garden produces big, full heads of all of those by Thanksgiving. This year, the heads on most of those plants aren't even close to what I consider a good size. If we get a hard freeze any time soon, I probably will be bringing in a lot of ridiculously small vegetables.

Many of the carrots aren't full sized yet, either, but those will continue to grow slowly underground through all kinds of weather.  It may be March before I pull the last one, but eventually those all will be brought into the kitchen.

Luckily, this year I planted plenty of kale and collard greens and a few bok choy. Greens don't seem to be delayed the way the heading vegetables are by an early hard freeze that's followed by weeks of warmer weather.

Even better, we haven't had a hard enough freeze to turn the winter radishes to mush yet, either, so we still are enjoying those, thinly sliced then salted.

To celebrate the South and its vegetables here on the last day of the year: