Sunday, January 23, 2011

Hidden Creatures in the Garden

I got an unexpected surprised while fiddling around with the rocks I have lining the beds in my garden (a work in progress). Here's what I saw when I flipped over a large one on the corner.

I found a very cold Leopard Frog that had tunneled under the rock. I didn't think I was close enough to any bodies of water to have frogs in my yard. No response when poked at, so I'm a little worried it might be dead, but it could just be hibernating. Obviously that was its idea when it dug itself under the rock. I just hope it didn't end up freezing to death during our last hard freeze. Daniel suggested we could bring it inside and try warming it up and see if it came back to life, but I thought it might be best to let sleeping frogs lie. I don't know about frogs, but I've heard about how waking up other hibernating animals can do them harm, so we ended up just carefully putting the rock back.

This may also explain where my toads go when they aren't lounging on the porch. They might have holes under other rocks in the garden. I'd better remember to be careful when lifting up rocks to make sure I don't squish any.

After things warm up, I'm going to check under the rock again to see if the frog made it. Hopefully I'll find an empty hole where the frog used to be before it came out of hibernation safely and hopped away.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Full Wolf Moon

I had trouble choosing the best name for this moon out of the traditional names of Ice Moon, Wolf Moon, or Old Moon. Sometimes we have ice in January, but not today. I went with Wolf Moon, since I like wolves, and it reminds me of how the tribe that used to live here, the Tonkawa, considered themselves to be descendants of wolves. Sadly, both the wolves and the Wolf People are no longer here. The Tonkawa were moved to a reservation in Oklahoma, and wolves are being reintroduced to Arizona and New Mexico, but there are no plans to bring any to Texas.

I moved my sweet potato cuttings from the garage to the windowsill where it's warmer, despite the risk of a kitty deciding it would be fun to knock them off. They didn't seem to be doing well in the chilly garage. I could also try growing slips from the roots I still have and see which method is easier.

This strange creature is "Sweetie", a sweet potato my weird fiancee dug out of the compost pile. I put it there with the other damaged, deformed, or really small roots when I harvested my sweet potatoes. Daniel thought it was cute and looked like some kind of curled-up creature, complete with nose and tail. He drew a face on it to complete the picture and had it living in the kitchen. Well, it turned out to like the warm kitchen, and started growing sprouts around the "nose". I decided I might as well keep it to grow slips from. I'm not sure which variety it is, but since it's orange it's either Porto Rico or Vardaman, and the sprouts are purple so far, so it's probably Vardaman. It will become more clear as the leaves grow, since those two varieties have very different looking leaves.
I potted up Sweetie and put him by a window with some houseplants for company. This will be a good way to compare growing sweet potatoes from slips or from cuttings. I'm not too worried about using a deformed potato to propagate my next crop from. I initially discarded the small or misshapen or damaged ones just because I didn't feel like bothering with eating them. Since sweet potatoes are propagated vegetatively, all plants from a certain variety should be clones of each other. Therefore, any differences between them would be due to environment and not genetics. This particular potato probably got curled up because it grew against a rock or something, not because anything is inherently wrong with it.

This is also why, when growing regular potatoes, you can eat the biggest ones and save the smallest ones to replant. Theoretically, the small ones and big ones of the same variety should all be genetically identical.

I've started moving some of my nightshades into individual pots, after starting them out in communal pots. I do this around when they start getting their first set of true leaves. By then it should be clear which ones are going to make it and are worth giving extra room. I have them out on the back porch right now to get some natural light. Last week was cold and rainy, but it's supposed to be sunny and warmer for a while, so I'll leave them out there until the next time it freezes.
Last moon, the jalapenos were still hanging on, but now it looks like they're done for. A few more hard freezes saw to that. I'm going to go ahead and pull them out and till up that bed some time this week.
The lettuce and endive is filling out nicely and is almost big enough to start picking for some winter salads. It's too hot in the summer to grow lettuce. It gets bitter and bolts, so lettuce salads are winter thing if you're eating seasonally.
The other greens like collards and chard are growing slowly due to the cold. I really should have planted them earlier so I'd have something from the garden to eat right now.
The shell peas are disappointing. They don't look so good, and have only set a couple of pods so far. The vines seem weak and stunted. Even though I got this packet of pea seeds for free, it's turning out to really not be worth it. I'm sticking with Tall Telephone from now on. That's a nice, robust variety that gave me a good crop last year. That's the shell pea that I'll compare all other shell peas to.

The Dwarf Grey Sugar peas look better, though they haven't started to flower or produce pods yet. At least the vines are looking healthy, so once they do set a crop, it should be a good one. This is the only snow pea I've ever grown, but it's always done well, giving me a good crop by spring.
The beets and carrots are also growing slowly in the cold weather. Carrot seedlings are so tiny!
The turnips are a little farther along, and have sped up their growth since we got some good rain and then some sun. The rutabagas really aren't doing well at all, though. Looks like I'll only end up with a few this year.
Looks like I won't have very many onions either. I still haven't gotten the hang of growing onions. I certainly won't have enough to save seed, since onions can have some inbreeding depression. It's hard to find seed for short-day open-pollinated onions, too.
The superstars of the garden right now are the fava beans. They're just growing away, no sign of any pests or problems of any kind. I think I'll mostly let this batch go to seed, maybe eating a few just to see how they taste, but I want to grow a whole lot more fava beans next winter. Not only are they growing like crazy when not much else is happening in the garden, but they fix nitrogen too.
Finally, in the garage my cushaw squash are turning yellow. I think that means they're ripening further in storage. I've still only managed to eat three of them, so I'm considering trying to unload some on my friends and family. I put the nicest, biggest ones on top of the garage refrigerator. Those are the ones I'm going to save seed from, so I'm keeping those.

They're also getting sweeter in storage. I really wonder why cushaw squash seem to have such a bad reputation. For example, the Seed Savers Exchange public catalog only carries one variety, Tennessee Sweet Potato, and it says it has poor eating quality and is best used for decorations. Sandhill Preservation Center has a similar opinion. Even though they carry more varieties, they say they are best used as livestock feed.

The ones I've grown do have a very stringy texture, especially compared to butternut or acorn squash. This might be off-putting if your recipe calls for cubes of squash, but the stringiness doesn't matter if the squash is pureed, like for baked goods. Aside from the texture thing, the last squash I cut open, roasted and pureed was quite sweet in flavor, and had a rich orange color to the flesh. Not at all pale and bland like I've seen cushaws described.

I wonder if it's a climate thing. Weirdly enough, most seed companies are based up north. Maybe a cushaw grown in the Midwest or Northeast doesn't have enough heat or a long enough growing season to develop to its full potential. This is probably a good example of why you should keep climate in mind when reading other people's opinions on plant varieties.

Anyway, I'm sold on cushaws now and plan on trying some more varieties in the future. Maybe there are some out there that are less stringy, which is really my only complaint (if I leave out the complaint that they're too productive, which isn't really something worth complaining about).

Friday, January 14, 2011

Not a Good Sign

Seen in the front yard on this rainy and cold winter day as I was checking the mail. Hoofprints in the mud beside the street. This is the closest they've gotten to my garden so far. May have to start doing serious research into deer control methods.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sourdough Bread

My mother got me a pizza peel and baking stone for Christmas, and I just used it for the first time, to make a loaf of plain sourdough bread. I made my sourdough starter last summer, and have been getting better and better at making bread with it. I guess this is more of my do-it-yourself type of attitude; now I'm growing my own bread yeast!

I keep it in a Mason jar in the fridge with a plastic lid on top (sourdough supposedly doesn't like metal). Here it is when it's been recently fed and is all happy and bubbly. I used this recipe for starter. I like it because it didn't use commercial yeast, which is kind of cheating, in my opinion. I mean, if I want to use yeast from a jar, I'll just make bread the way I was doing before (and still do sometimes now, which I'll get to later). This starter is all wild yeast, that was either floating in the air, or was already on the flour. I heard somewhere that wild yeast is more adapted to live in a sourdough-type environment than commercial yeast, which makes sense.

One thing I'd like to note about that recipe, though. I had some mold issues with getting it started before I figured out you should stir it a lot, like twice a day. Otherwise I would always get mold on about the third day. I don't know why it helped, but stirring it either helped the yeast grow faster, or mixed the mold spores down into the starter where they couldn't grow as well, or both. Anyway, the trick to getting your starter started is that you want your favorable microbes (that is, yeast and lactic acid bacteria) to out-grow unfavorable ones (like mold). As time goes on they need less help from you, but the microbe balance is kind of delicate in the beginning.

The sourdough bread recipe I've had the most luck with so far is this one. I tried another recipe that didn't have milk in it and had more salt and less sugar, and it didn't work out. I think the milk and sugar help the yeast grow, while too much salt retards yeast growth. I always knead my bread in my KitchenAid stand mixer. The directions tell you to knead bread on speed 2 for 2-3 minutes. I've found it works better to do it on speed 1 for at least 10 minutes. Maybe even longer since I think I still have a problem with adequate gluten development.

I had been making this recipe in a loaf pan, which helps if your dough is underdeveloped. The sides of the pan help hold the rising dough up, while on a flat surface an underdeveloped dough just oozes out flat. Well, this time I decided to go ahead and give a round loaf a try.
Another thing I've figured out is that how you form your loaf is really important. It's hard to explain without showing you, but you need to work your ball of dough into shape properly for it to rise properly. Most instructions on how to make bread will explain how to do this. My point is that you can't skip this step! You kind of fold/roll it around to make a "skin" on the dough that holds in the bubbles of gas as it rises.
Then you have to let it rise until it's risen "enough". Again it's hard to explain. It looks and feels right when it's enough. If you poke the dough, the dimple pops back out. Under-risen dough still feels too dense, and over-risen dough kind of collapses into a pile of goo (not a pretty sight).

One of the downsides of using natural wild yeast is that the rise takes a lot longer. You usually only let it rise once, instead of with regular bread where you let it rise, punch it down and form the loaf, then let it rise again, but that one rise takes all day. It depends on temperature, but it takes something like 6-8 hours instead of two. If I didn't start my dough first thing in the morning (which also means I must have fed my starter last night right before bed) and want fresh bread by dinner, I turn to my jar of commercial yeast instead of my sourdough starter.
Another mistake I used to make is I slashed my loaves before they rose instead of after. No, it does make a difference. Slash your loves right before they go into the oven. The slashes are to let the bread poof up in the oven, not while it rises.
I needed more cornmeal on my pizza peel because it was a little hard to slide it into the oven, onto the waiting hot baking stone, but it finally went! Got a little jostled around, but not too badly.
Would have been prettier if I had bothered with an egg wash, but it still turned out well. I was sure to keep an eye on the loaf while it was baking since my oven has proven itself to be untrustworthy. I don't want more incidents like the burned fruitcake.
It's still flatter than I would have preferred, but it's not too bad. I'm certainly getting better at this bread baking thing. The texture of the finished product is getting lighter and chewier, which is what I want.

Bread made with wild sourdough starter is still different than bread made with bottled yeast, so I'm not sure if I can go quite as far as to "never use commercial yeast again!" like some sourdough aficionados say. I still manage to get lighter-textured bread with commercial yeast, though that could be due to inexperience more than being just the starter's fault. However, in addition to that, you can't use as much salt with sourdough, which I find noticable. It has a sour taste with very little salty taste. I have a nice recipe for a crusty Italian-type bread that uses nothing but flour, salt, water, olive oil, and yeast, and I just don't think a sourdough version of that would be the same. (Like I said, I tried a sourdough recipe that didn't have milk in it and had less sugar, and it didn't work out. Wouldn't rise.) I've also heard that sourdough doesn't get along with garlic or cinnamon. I would guess it's because of the antimicrobial properties of those ingredients. So better keep the jar of commercial yeast if I want to make cinnamon buns.

On the other hand, I finally found some rye flour, and am really looking forward to trying to make some sourdough rye. I think the sour taste would go really well with the rye taste, and I have centuries of European tradition to back me up.

Anyway, now that I know my baking stone works, the next bread recipe I'm going to try is this Harvest Squash Bread, which I found while looking for a squash bread that wasn't a sweet quickbread to use up some of my squash. I'm going to use some of my sourdough starter instead of the sponge they use in the recipe, and of course some of my pureed cushaw squash instead of the roasted acorn squash they use.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year 2011

Happy New Year!

2010 was my first full year gardening here, after several years being gardenless. It was very rewarding, and the great thing about gardening is that you improve at it every year.

As usual, some things did great while other things didn't work out. The weather always plays a factor, and in 2010 we had a late freeze in March that hurt a lot of my plants, then a hot and dry spell in April that finished a lot of them off. The summer was typically hot and dry, until we got some rain in late August and a cool down and very rainy September, one of the rainiest Septembers on record. This was followed by the driest October through December on record, with no rain until Christmas week. The first frost came in late November, which is typical, and we've had a few freezes since then, including a good hard one or two, of course punctuated by warmer, sunny days, as winters here usually are.

Things that didn't do well were the peppers, eggplants, corn, melons, pole beans, and potatoes. Most of these were done in by the weird spring weather with late freezes and then baking heat. I tried replanting some of them, but then it was too late to get them to a good size before the summer heat came and toasted them. The potato crop was disappointing, but I have never grown potatoes before, so I might have done it wrong. I didn't plant them in trenches, for example. The only peppers I got a good crop of were the jalapenos I got at Home Depot after my seed-started peppers didn't make it.

Things that did do well were the tomatoes, garlic, squash, sweet potatoes, peas, and greens. The peas and greens survived the unusually harsh winter just fine and grew well into spring. I had a good crop of tomatoes, enough for plenty of fresh eating and a little drying and canning (wish I had room to plant more for canning). The garlic did wonderfully, and the sweet potatoes also gave a pretty good crop, especially compared to the regular potatoes. The squash is a complicated story. What didn't get killed by squash vine borers before it could make a crop did well, but I did plant several more varieties that didn't make it at all. The only squash I actually got to eat were some yellow crooknecks that developed before the borers killed the plants, and I got a bumper crop of cushaws, but only after the squash vine borers were mostly gone in the fall.

2011 New Year's Garden Resolutions

1. Get a soil test - Just to get some sort of baseline for fertility here.
2. Continue to work on "hardscaping" - That's a term I just learned for the non-plant components of a garden. I have been making borders for the beds with rocks as I dig them up, and I laid down that black landscape fabric on the paths, but they soon deteriorated from exposure to the elements. I know that stuff is meant to be under mulch, but I didn't get around to putting down mulch on top of it right away. I'm considering whether it would be worth it to get a truckload of mulch delivered.
3. Be more careful about water - As you may have seen, rain is unpredictable here. I need to make use of my soaker hose and rain barrel water when it really counts - which is mainly while plants are small, and once plants are established, only water when they really need it. Irrigating the garden really shows up on the utility bill!
4. Keep on top of Bermuda grass - It's a constant battle to keep that stuff under control. Organic weed killer (made of strong vinegar and orange oil) doesn't work very well. Roundup is more effective but not organic. Solarization didn't work, probably because I didn't have the plastic down long enough, but I don't feel like waiting a year or two with the garden under plastic to kill that stuff. It grows right through mulch. The most effective thing might actually be digging it up! Too bad that's also the most labor intensive, since I need to get out every little piece.
5. Direct seed onions - I still haven't had good luck with onions. Those thin, delicate little sprouts are just so hard to transplant. Next year I might try direct-seeding them, so I don't have to handle them so much.
6. Start fall greens earlier - This year I tried starting my brassicas, salad greens, etc., in the garage in August, but it was much too hot in there, so I had to replant in September, which means that right now I don't have any big enough to harvest. I had to BUY collard greens for New Year's! This year I might try having them on the porch in the shade, where they might get better air circulation, or maybe I could even find somewhere in the air-conditioned house to stick them, though right now I have no idea where.
7. Harvest garlic earlier - I harvested my garlic in May and June, but after curing, it turned out a lot of my garlic could have been harvested earlier. While they were fresh it was hard to see, but after the wrappers dried out, I could see that the cloves had already started to separate on some of them, especially the softnecks and elephant garlic. Not a big deal, but still good to know for next time.
8. Kill those squash vine borers - Next year I'd like to have some squash other than cushaws! I heard that neem oil is effective against SVBs and organic, maybe even a mixture of Bt and neem oil. I know for sure Bt alone doesn't work, because I already tried that.
9. Don't bother with corn this year - The hybrid sweet corn I tried last year didn't amount to anything. I would like to some day grow heirloom corn that gets nice, big, robust stalks, but that takes up a lot of room. I think I'll take a year off of trying corn this time.
10. Start fall tomatoes in May - Last year my little fall tomatoes fried in the heat. This year I'll try starting them earlier and transplanting them out when they're nice and big and won't dry out as fast. Spring-planted tomatoes die out around July and August, so it would be nice to have a second tomato crop in the fall, especially for canning.
11. Save more seed - and write more about it in this blog. I've always been interested in saving seed, but I think now I can get serious about it. This blog really helps me keep track of things like planting and harvesting, so I'm sure it will also help me keep track of seed saving. Of course if someone out there reads about it and finds it helpful in some way, that's good too.

That's all I can think about right now. Have a happy and bountiful new year, everyone!