Saturday, August 11, 2012

How to Preserve Okra (and other news)


We’re well into the harvest season now, and August has brought more temperate weather to our corner of NY. This has been great news for the heirloom tomatoes, as they have begun to flower again and are producing tons of new fruit with very little blossom end rot. Just last week I gave the garden its last helping of Tomato Tone for the season, and the okra responded by growing about 6 inches in just a few days. I guess someone was hungry!
  
View of the garden
 Speaking of okra, in one of my last posts, I wrote about the trouble with it so far: that it produced 4-5 pods at a time on a fairly regular basis, which although dependable is too little to use for much other than eating raw. Okra is one of my favorite plants in the garden. It looks cool, the flowers are pretty, it is extremely easy to grow, it’s pretty disease resistant, and it produces fairly regularly. And, of course, we love to eat it! The only issue has been that by the time we get 10-12 pods, the first few have become soft in the refrigerator, so it’s a mix of perfect and subpar. It really doesn’t keep very long in the fridge, and eating it raw isn’t really the reason I planted it.
 
Green okra

Red okra
Luckily, we’ve found a good solution to preserve the okra until there is a decent amount ready to use. Like many fruits and vegetables, okra freezes well. It has the additional benefit of not needing to be blanched first. In fact, blanching it tends to bring out the starch in the seeds, making it a slimy mess. Trust me, skip that step and just freeze it raw.

Begin by slicing the okra (just keep the slices about the same thickness so they freeze and cook consistently). Then, prepare it for the deep freeze. The key here is to freeze the okra the same way you would freeze fresh berries, by laying the slices flat on a sheet tray and placing them in the freezer until stiff. This results in a quick freeze, and it also keeps the slices from being crushed. That’s why this works so well for fresh berries (or anything else that is delicate and prone to crushing).

Sliced and ready for the freezer
Once the slices are frozen you can transfer them to a sealed bag for long-term storage. We like to slice the okra first, since we normally saut√© it with some olive oil and herbs when we eat it for dinner. It’s also a good preparation for soups and gumbo. I’m not sure how it would freeze whole, but I don’t see much benefit in that unless you plan on cooking the pods whole.

Every few days there are 3-4 new pods ready, so I simply repeat the process and continue freezing in small batches, adding to the existing bag of frozen okra. The key to keep okra producing is to make sure to pick the pods as soon as they are ready, as they can go from 4-5 inches to 7 or 8 inches (and very tough and woody) in a day or so. I’ve noticed that as soon as I pick the plants clean of any decent sized pods they tend to flower again and produce even more heavily.

The peppers are loaded with fruit!
This fall, I look forward to a meal of homemade gumbo using this okra, accompanied by a nice glass of Sam Adams Octoberfest! Until then, we continue to enjoy the tastes of summer, which are in full swing now as the heirlooms are producing as many tomatoes as we can eat (look for a post on that very soon!)

Until next time, happy gardening!

Friday, August 3, 2012

A Midsummer Night's Update


Summer has been busier than I expected, and it’s been a while since my last post. I’m not the only one who has been busy; the garden has also been busily churning out goodies for us over the past two weeks.

Sweet 100 Tomato
Cherry tomatoes are really up and running now, as there are dozens of them ready each day. We’ve had a few large tomatoes, but those were mostly from the first set that had some blossom end rot. Oddly enough, it seems like blossom end rot makes them ripen faster, even when they are slightly underdeveloped in terms of size. Still, I just slice off the bottom and a solid 2/3 to ¾ of the tomato is fine to use (and delicious). Now we have several perfectly blemish-free tomatoes that are almost ripe as well. I have had a little cracking and some more blossom end rot here and there, but overall that problem seems to have worked itself out in most of the newer fruit.

One brandywine and 2 green zebras.... top and bottom view
 The star of the garden this year, hands down, has been the eggplant. This is my first time ever growing eggplant, and I can tell you that I’ve never been happier with any crop yet. Of course, I must mention that I am eggplant lover, which is good because those stocky little plants just keep pumping out delicious, perfectly-sized fruits at a crazy pace given their size (they are only about 2 feet tall). 

It's called black beauty for a reason!
 I saw one black beauty (your typical “grocery store” purple eggplant) starting and figured it might get 6 inches or so and then stop growing. Wow was I wrong! It became a behemoth 1 pound, 12 ounce fruit that was as tender and flavorful as any eggplant I have ever tasted. For comparison, the round white weighed in at around 10 ounces, and the long purple was 4 ounces. This past weekend we made a nice pan of eggplant parmesan using one black beauty, one round white, and one long purple eggplant. I called it the eggplant parm trio! It was every bit as delicious as it sounds. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the eggplant but this trumps even my wildest expectations for it.

Top: Eggplant parm fixings!     Bottom: lemon and bread loaf for scale to show fruit size
So far we’ve harvested 7 eggplants between all the varieties, and there are easily another 20 ready to harvest or close to it, with tons of flowers and budding fruit as well! While the heat and blaring sun have caused the tomatoes and bell peppers some stress (thus the blossom end rot) the eggplant are all extremely healthy and amazing productive! Keep in mind this is planting them at the rate of 2 plants per 7 gallon square pot as well (which is more crowded than recommended). The only real drawback (and it isn’t really one for those of us who love eggplant) is finding uses for that much eggplant.

Black beauty and round white eggplants

Eggplant collage
Another star has been the okra. I can’t keep up with it! The only issue is that there are a handful of pods every few days, and there are only so many things you can do with a handful of okra pods at a time. I love to eat them raw (something that many non-okra fans cringe at the thought of) as well as saut√© them up to have with lunch or for a snack. I also toss them in an omelet from time to time. If there is a plant that loves the heat as much as the eggplant seems to, it’s the okra. Not only does it look cool, but the flowers are pretty and it just keeps producing and growing. It is easily one of my perennial favorites in the garden.

Okra flowers and pods (red okra on left, green on right)
The bell peppers have been somewhat frustrating, as I keep getting blossom end rot on them as soon as they start getting a decent size. I have just been harvesting them and chopping out the bad spot (which leaves most of the pepper fine to use) but I really want some ripe bell peppers! Hopefully the largest ones will turn color soon. Even still, the ones I’ve harvested are tasty, just a bit smaller and greener than I envisioned when I planted them.

Black krim getting ripe!
Finally, be sure to check out the harvest tally on the link above! The crops are rolling in!

Until next time, happy gardening!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Windy + Hot + Sunny=A Fantastic Dehydrator!


A few posts ago I described my battle with blossom end rot. While I do think that watering was the major issue, as newer fruits set since I began being more meticulous with watering seem to be rot free, I have begun to wonder if the combination of heat and wind has also played a role.

Like most of the country, the Buffalo region has been very hot and very dry so far this summer. While we can battle the lack of water by irrigating daily, the heat and wind has taken its toll on the garden.

The okra LOVES the heat (look at all those pods)!
Being that we are upstairs, it is generally quite a bit windier than ground level. It’s amazing the difference 13-15 feet can make. We’re a bit higher than many second floors, as the first floor of most homes here in the city is a few feet above actual ground level. While this makes living upstairs even more fun than normal for those of us who enjoy the privacy and cool factor of having a view, it’s amazing how much difference it makes in terms of wind. On the ground, you have walls, cars, bushes, etc. acting as windbreaks. Upstairs there is very little in the way of windbreak, and the wind currents are funneled pretty effectively down the streets and against the fronts of the houses. In addition, it is a solid 10-15 degrees warmer upstairs, given the heat radiating off of the porch floor (which although carpeted is still a black tarred roof), road, sidewalks, and buildings. Finally, we get the most intense sun, as we face west on this side of the road.
 
video
Check out this video of the wind on Monday! (big gust at :20)

Combine the intense afternoon sun with the high temperatures and low humidity on the porch due to the heat and constant wind, and you have a fairly effective dehydrator. For example, the winds Monday were brutal, with gusts up to 40 mph and sustained winds in the 20-30 mph range. The temperature measured on top of the soil in one of the containers on the porch in the hot sun was 106 degrees (with a high of 109). 106 degrees, paired with hot sun and intense wind will dry out pretty much any plant. On hotter days I’ve measured temperatures as high as 126 degrees, even with significant wind! This might be great for making jerky, but tomatoes in particular do not seem to appreciate it. I will say that okra and eggplant seem to love the intense heat, and if anything are thriving in it. Still, tomatoes are the centerpiece of many home gardens, so this presents a challenge.

It's hot out there!
 Battling the hot sun and dry weather is challenging, but add in the almost daily stiff breeze with the fairly common days of strong winds and it becomes daunting to battle dehydration and the resulting end rot issues. My solution yesterday was to bring every plant inside and fill our apartment with tomatoes, peppers, okra, eggplant, and squash. It was a drastic measure, but after watching the plants get thrashed around and having several branches snap off I had to act. The final straw for me was watching a full-size heirloom tomato in a 7 gallon pot, which had just been watered and had 4 bricks set in the dirt for weight, get knocked over with ease. This caused it to drop 2 beautiful looking large tomatoes, so I was taking no more chances. Every plant except the largest tomatoes, which are staked and tied to the porch railing for support, came inside to ride out the wind storm.

Tomatoes in the living room
 I am happy to say that losses were mitigated. The jellybean cherry tomato plant dropped about 30 green tomatoes (not that I counted them as I gathered them from all over the living room floor or anything) when it got knocked over again—this time inside the apartment by a wind gust coming in through the open window. But it is loaded with blossoms and ripening fruit, so although I am not happy about it I am not too upset. The black krim also dropped a fairly large tomato, but it was one of the remaining fruits from the first set, and predictably had blossom end rot, so no big loss there either.

The moral of the story is not to overlook the damaging and dehydrating effects that wind can have on your garden. I have to water every single day, partly due to the sun and heat, but also in large measure due to the daily stiff breeze that fans the plants and dries them right out. Plants can lose a lot of water through their leaves due to evaporation, and this effect is sped up exponentially when it is windy. I picked up the bell peppers in their 7 gallon pots to move them and they felt like they weighed almost nothing, which means they were bone dry already. I had watered them very deeply just that afternoon. Beware of the wind! You’ll need to water much more than you think if it gets windy.

On another note, I am putting together a harvest tally chart, which will be featured on the link right below the header of the blog. It’s amazing how much we’ve already enjoyed so far, and the main harvests are still to come! Look for that page to go live in the next few days. It is one of the main reasons I started this blog, since it is hard to find that type of information in a convenient and easy to use form anywhere.

Until next time, happy gardening!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Adding a Few LED Solar Decorations

We recently added three LED solar lights to the garden. They are the type that change color every few seconds, and they certainly add a nice ambiance to the porch after dark! 
 
the eggplants seem to enjoy the hummingbird decor


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Cucumber Update


As I mentioned earlier in the week, I thought I would do a series of updates on individual crops, with some detailed photos and some thoughts about the growing experience so far.
A gardener's best friend hard at work on the cucumbers
I’ll begin with cucumbers. Over the past two weeks, these have gone into high gear, as we have harvested 5 lemon cukes and 3 straight 8 cucumbers (with several very large straight 8 cukes still out there hanging on the vines). Both have been delicious, although I think that the straight 8 is my favorite of the two.
sliced lemon cuke

straight 8 cuke
 Just to review, I planted 8 cucumber plants in an 11.5 gallon flexible container: 5 straight 8 and 3 lemon. I planted them in a circle around the outside of the circular pot, and put a large square cage into the dirt for them to climb. I used the Sta Green potting mix, and fertilized with Tomato Tone for the most part, and Miracle Gro once early in the season. As far as the rate of harvest, the vines are pumping out 3-4 cukes per week, and given the number of new blossoms that rate should continue for quite some time.

  
a powdery intruder
 As you might have read before, I have been having issues with blossom end rot in the tomatoes and peppers (hopefully that it is a thing of the past for this season). On the cucumbers, I have been struggling with powdery mildew. At first, I just pruned the affected leaves off and it seems to have solved that problem. However, today I noticed that it seemed to be spreading across the plants. Most people say it is more of a cosmetic issue than a true threat to the plant, but it is making my once happy and healthy cucumber vines look sickly. I might try the well-known baking soda solution, especially on the squash before it decides to take that over too! It is odd though, as the conditions for powdery mildew don’t seem present on the porch. It is hot, dry, and very windy out there.


 One last observation about cucumber growing: let the cukes mature. If you pick them too small they will be very strong tasting and somewhat bitter. The longer you let them grow, the more mellow and juicy they seem to become. As with many garden crops, the wait is definitely worth it!

straight 8 getting started

both types of cucumbers growing

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A photo tour of the current garden

It's been a busy summer so far on the porch, and we've already enjoyed quite a few harvests from the garden. In the next few days, I will post the stats on the "data page" as we have been keeping a checklist of what we've harvested so far. We've picked beets, chard (multiple times), broccoli, a couple of peppers, a couple okra pods, a green zebra tomato (which was not ripe apparently but was still decent), and quite a few cucumbers.

This week I will write some posts focused on specific crops, such as the cucumbers (which are starting to pump out the cukes at quite a pace), eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes.


Until then, here's a photo tour of the garden as of yesterday. It's amazing how much things have grown in just a week.


View of garden from porch door
View of garden toward door
Black Krim plant
Healthy black krim tomatoes!


Green zebras
Diamond bell pepper (from carnival mix)
bell peppers
Eggplant flower
Eggplant
Red okra flowering
Lemon and straight 8 cukes

Look for some write-ups and details on specific crops starting this week! Until then, happy gardening!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Getting Rid of Blossom End Rot

It has been a couple of days since my blossom end rot post, and I’ve taken some steps to hopefully resolve the issue.

First, I would like to thank everyone who responded here and elsewhere with suggestions to correct this problem. The consensus (which also corresponded to my almost constant reading and research on the topic over the past week or so) is that it’s primarily a watering problem, which is in turn causing a calcium deficiency. Luckily, this seems like a fairly straightforward issue to correct. 

Mulch (not pictured), calcium spray, and soil tester to the rescue!
 I was talking to some experienced gardeners who said that in their experience a little less water than needed with tomatoes is better than a little more. For one thing they will have more flavor. This makes sense, as any strawberry lover can attest to. The hotter and drier the summer, the sweeter and more intense the berries. A wet soggy spring usually equals tasteless, watery berries. Also, they tend to be able to deal with dry conditions more than overly soggy ones. Of course, consistency is best!

As I was hearing this I remembered how I spent at least a full minute soaking each tomato plant’s dirt with the hose this summer. Until this weekend, I had operated under the theory that you can’t overwater a tomato that lives in a container, but I had also never had containers that were an appropriate size for what I was growing. Thus, I could soak my 5 gallon bucket all day long if I wanted, and the 4 poor tomato plants packed inside would never develop blossom end rot. This year, I had taken special care not to overcrowd, and had provided 11.5 gallon containers for them, which were very capable of holding excess moisture if watered improperly. Suddenly, it all started to make sense. I knew I needed to take some steps to control the moisture as well as I could. 

Carnival Mix pepper plant happily mulched and ready to produce some yet to be determined color of bell pepper!
 First, I decided to mulch the containers. Mulch not only protects the soil from sun and wind, but it also tends to stay damp and hold the moisture in. So far, it has worked well, as my soil moisture tester has read right in the middle for the past 3 days with very little watering, even though it has been quite hot out on the porch (more on that later). I have been very careful to only water plants on the low end of the “moist” scale and then just a small amount of water. My goal is for the moisture in the containers to be right in the middle as much of the time as possible. At least this should provide some consistency to the plants so that they can effectively utilize the calcium lurking deep in the potting mix.

Liquified calcium spray
Second, I bought a calcium spray and applied it to the plants over the weekend. I wanted to give them a shot of calcium in addition to the mulch and my more consistent attention to their watering needs. You mix it with water and spray it directly onto the leaves of the plant. From what I’ve read, the plants absorb it directly through their leaves quite well, so we shall see. I know it has its detractors (mostly people who say that the problem will be corrected by maturing plants and/or more consistent watering, but it will look like the spray “fixed” it) but it can’t really hurt. At this point, I want a black krim this season, and I’m coming out with all guns blazing against this blossom end rot. I didn’t do all this work to keep throwing away dozens of tomatoes!

Trusty old soil tester
This brings me to another point about watering: I hadn’t really been using my soil tester before. It’s not that I didn’t have one; it was just sitting nicely in a bucket on the floor of the closet. In fact, I watered and watered and watered the plants, probably overcompensating for the sun, wind, and heat on the porch. This likely caused the swings in moisture that left me with blossom end rot. As I mentioned before, I’ve had my tomatoes wilt on an almost daily basis in previous years due to inferior soil, overcrowding, and containers that were too small, and rarely if ever suffered much loss from blossom end rot (maybe a tomato here and there, but nothing worth mentioning or worrying about). This is the first year that I have a hose handy and I’m not hauling buckets, and it may have actually worked against me in that regard. Now, I test the soil in each pot before I water, and I don’t water if the moisture reading is in the middle (which seems to be an ideal moisture level for most plants).

Finally, a word on the temperature. Today, which was not an especially hot day (it topped off around 80 here today) I set a thermometer on the floor of the porch next to my pepper pots. The picture below tells the story: it got a LOT hotter than I expected. 126 degrees to be exact! There is really nothing I can do about that; we live upstairs and the porch doesn’t have a roof, so hopefully the roots of the plants stay somewhat comfortable.

Yikes! It gets HOT out there on the porch!
I will say that the plants themselves all look great, and the tomatoes are now almost all 6 feet tall and growing like mad. Hopefully my issue was just overwatering and then letting things get too dry before overwatering again. Since we are not going on any out of town trips of any length for a good 6-7 weeks, I should be able to monitor every day and water only when needed.

Finally, the best news of all is that the black krim plant has about 20 small tomatoes on it, and I do not see any blossom end rot on those yet. The green zebra is absolutely loaded with tomatoes, and none seem affected. The mystery heirlooms are not as productive yet, so maybe that is a good thing since they are just starting to flower and set fruit now. Hopefully these proactive steps will help keep the dreaded blossom end rot at bay, and in no time at all I’ll be posting photos of a delicious, ripe, black krim sliced and ready to enjoy!

Until next time, happy gardening!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Blossom End Rot


This is a post I never expected to write. For the first time ever, I am battling the dreaded blossom end rot. It is decimating my black krims, attacking about half of the tomatoes on my heirloom plants, and has even moved to take a couple of my prized bell peppers in their infancy.

A bounty of rotted goodness
In past years, I’ve done just about everything the “wrong way” in terms of container gardening. I’ve used pots that were way too small for what I was growing. For example, last year I put four Abe Lincoln tomato plants into each cat litter bucket, which holds about 5 gallons of dirt. I’ve used the cheapest dirt I could find anywhere. The stuff I used last year was so heavy that it pulled away from the sides of the container as soon as it dried out (which was every single day). I might as well have just used dirt from the yard. I would leave for 3 days at a time and when I would get back everything would be so wilted I would wonder if it would come back or not once it was watered.

All of that, and I never dealt with blossom end rot.

This year, I bought nice big containers, much better soil, I’ve been watering far more consistently, and the plants have far more room to grow than ever before. Yet now, nearly every singly black krim tomato I have has blossom end rot. On the other heirlooms it is about 50%. I had 4 green zebras with it also, but that plant’s fruit seems less bothered than the others. All the cherry varieties are fine, with no blossom end rot in sight.
The cherries are doing great!
I’m at a bit of a loss. Reading up on it merely clouds the issue. Blossom end rot is caused by calcium deficiency in the plant itself, but not necessarily the soil. Often the issue is that the plant cannot draw the calcium from the soil, which can happen for a number of reasons. It could be too little water, too much water, too hot, too cold, too windy, not windy enough, or it just might have a headache. Okay, I made those last two up, but essentially the cause could be anything, which makes it tough to pin down.

I don’t think it is too much water, as it has been hot and very dry here. I think it has rained once in the past two weeks for more than 2 minutes. I’ve been watering about every other day or so, and in the past I’ve never had an issue giving a potted tomato that was 4 feet tall “too much” water, especially since the containers have ample drainage. As far as too little water, that is possible, but as I said before my plants would be wilted on a daily basis in the past because they were in ridiculously small containers. I had one poor Abe Lincoln tomato in a gallon pot, and it would wilt every day. Still, I got a few nice fruits from that plant, and I did not get any blossom end rot. The tomatoes this year have very rarely wilted, but the dirt is pretty dry when I water them (as tested with a soil moisture tester).

Most of the peppers are doing great as well
This leads me to the temperature issue. It has certainly not been too cold, so I can immediately toss that one out. It’s possible that the issue could be the heat, especially since it has also been quite windy for the past couple of weeks. The temperature has been in the mid 80’s to low 90’s for a while here, and on the porch it can be a good 10 -15 degrees warmer than that when the hot afternoon sun is blazing down on the plants. Couple that with the almost constant wind lately, and it can be like a giant convection oven out there. I have read that heat and windy conditions can stress the plants, leading to less calcium absorption and blossom end rot, so it seems possible. 

One last possibility could be too much nitrogen rich fertilizer, but I also don’t think this is the case. I used some organic chicken feather meal based fertilizer back in early May, and I applied one dose of Miracle Grow tomato food in June. The chicken meal stuff (I don’t remember the exact name) was low in nitrogen and high in calcium, and the MG tomato food was pretty even across the board. I also use fertilizer sparingly, and apply less than the dosage called for. I suppose it is possible that the added fertilizer, along with the Sta Green mix, has a bit too much nitrogen and is interfering with calcium absorption. This seems unlikely, given that I mixed the MG weak and added maybe a cup of the mix to an 11.5 gallon container once this summer.

From the top, the blossom end rot isn't noticeable
Not knowing exactly what is causing the blossom end rot makes solving the issue a bit difficult. I have considered buying a foliage calcium spray, which helps the plant absorb calcium quickly. It won’t cure the currently afflicted fruit, but hopefully it will help new fruit. Then again, this stuff has its supporters and detractors, and I tend to like to avoid adding stuff from a bottle when I can (a lesson I learned from aquarium keeping). It can’t really hurt, although many say that it does little to help, and the plants will naturally recover and begin producing healthier fruit, making the spray seem effective when the tomatoes would have been fine without it. I might try a test and spray it just on my black krim plants, since I am most excited for them, they are almost all being ruined by blossom end rot, and at this point if I get a few plump, rot free, ripe black krims I am not going to worry about whether it was the spray or just nature taking its course.

Carnival pepper mix (I think it is a white bell)
Luckily,  the peppers mostly seem fine, aside from a couple that I lost to blossom end rot. I normally lose one or two anyway, so that is no big deal. Hopefully it stays that way. As I said above, all of the cherries are fine. Almost all of the green zebras are also doing well, and seem rot free. It’s the heirlooms for the most part, and especially the black krims, that are being affected. Some of the heirloom plants were the seed mix, so it is possible that some of them are actually also black krims, and I just don’t know it yet.

In my limited (and hopefully soon ending) experience with this issue, there is almost nothing more frustrating than blossom end rot. When you have healthy, green, large plants loaded with tomatoes, and almost every one is being destroyed by blossom end rot it can be very discouraging.

The okra is loving this sun and heat!
  
On a positive note, the eggplant and the okra seem to absolutely love the blazing heat and hot wind. When we got home from a camping trip yesterday, almost everything looked wilted except the okra and eggplants. I think the okra grew 4 inches in a few days. We have even harvested two pods from the red okra plants, which are only about 8 inches tall. In fact, they didn’t even begin to look healthy until it became unbearably hot out here, and now they look beautiful! If nothing else, we know that okra and eggplants seem to love the heat and wind on the porch. Hopefully in a few weeks I’ll be writing a post about how all of this blossom end rot stuff has resolved itself and the tomato harvest is rolling in.

White eggplant emerging
 Until next time, happy gardening!