Sunday, June 26, 2011

2011 Garlic Harvest

It's not a pretty sight. When I planted last fall, I thought I'd never have to buy garlic again, since I got such a bountiful harvest last year. But alas, it was not to be. I'm glad I grew garlic last year since it showed me that growing good garlic is even possible for me. If this year had been my first year, I don't know if I'd ever have tried again.

Broadleaf Czech
Planting Date: 9/29/2010
Harvest Date: 6/1/2011
Bulbs Harvested: 1

This was my second-best garlic last year. This year they all died except this one, which gave me one small bulb (the pencil is for scale).
Lorz Italian
Planting Date: 9/6/2010
Harvest Date: 6/1/2011
Bulbs Harvested: 2

This was my first year growing Lorz Italian. It was one of the garlic varieties I got from a GardenWeb trade. Of the five varieties that were sent, this is the only one that managed to give any bulbs, just these two small ones.
Planting Date: 10/3/2010
Harvest Date: 6/1/2011
Bulbs Harvested: 6

This was the third-best garlic from last year. This year I got 6 very small bulbs. I guess that makes it my highest yielding true garlic from this year.
Planting Date: 10/3/2010
Harvest Date: 6/11/2011
Bulbs Harvested: 16

The elephant garlic is the only thing that might have something worth eating. Some of my biggest elephant bulbs are about as big as regular garlic, which is still much smaller than elephant garlic should be. I never got any garlic scapes from anything. I'm also worried because I was stupid and didn't cure these properly. I guess I was in a bad mood when I harvested them and just threw them in a pile in the garage rather than hanging them properly. Now some of them have black mold on them.
What happened to the rest of my varieties? Well, this is pretty typical of what they looked like. Mostly shriveled up and dead.
Here's one of the better looking ones that still has a little green on it dug up, but you can see it never managed to make a bulb. Leaving it in the ground longer won't help at this point. I tried that with some and they just dried up completely and decomposed away.

The garlic that didn't make it
Ajo Rojo - planted 9/29/2010, trade
Georgian Fire - planted 9/6/2010, replanted from last year
German Extra Hardy - planted 9/29/2010, replanted from last year
Inchelium Red - planted 9/29/2010, trade
Persian Star - planted 9/1/2010, replanted from last year
Pskem River - planted 9/1/2010, replanted from last year
Shilla - planted 9/6/2010, trade
Sonoran - planted 9/1/2010, trade
Chet's Italian Red - planted 10/3/2010, replanted from last year

So what went wrong? Why was last year's harvest so bountiful while this one so dismal? I mostly blame the weather. The garlic seemed to be doing fine until we had that hard freeze in February where it stayed below freezing for a few days in a row. That mostly damaged the softnecks, such as Chet's Italian Red.

Then we had hardly any spring and immediately went into hot, dry weather. It got way too hot way too fast, and the drought from last year has continued into this year and just gotten worse. I've tried to keep things watered, but it's not substitute for rain, and the garlic just didn't like weather more typical of July coming already in May. That heat did in the cold-hardier hardnecks that survived the freeze. It just went from one temperature extreme to the other with no time for recovery between.

However, I can't completely dismiss the contribution of human error. I can think of two mistakes I probably made. One is I didn't mulch my garlic. I figured since they did fine last year with no mulch, then they'd do fine this year too. Mulch probably would have helped them endure the temperature extremes better.

The other mistake is I probably planted them too early this time. The first time I grew garlic, I ordered it from Seed Savers Exchange in 2009 and had to wait for them to ship my order, which forced me to wait to plant until October. This time I was replanting from last year, and also received my garlic trade in August, so I planted in September. I didn't think it would hurt to give them an early start, especially since the planting guides for this area don't all agree, and if I put them all together I get a range of garlic-planting times from August through November.

But maybe you can plant too early. I remember reading something on GardenWeb about how too-early planting can cause too much growth in the fall and make them less cold-hardy. I guess that makes sense if they get to grow during warm fall weather and then have to get used to freezes, rather than starting out when it's already cool and being acclimated to that.

Well, what do I do now? I still have some garlic powder I made from Chet's Italian Red last year, but don't have much for fresh eating this year. Guess I'll have to go back to grocery store garlic.

For planting stock, I wonder if these undersized bulbs are worth re-planting. I'll still have to buy more planting stock anyway. Seed Savers Exchange isn't offering a garlic sampler this year, so I'd have to buy individual varieties. I could replace some of the varieties I got from them before that did well (at least in 2010). Gourmet Garlic Gardens looks good, and they're based out of Texas so they have varieties that do well here. I could get one of their warm winter sampler packs and maybe get some varieties I haven't tried before. Either way, I'm going to have to wait until I get some money in and the garlic companies are taking orders for fall.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Rain for the Summer Solstice!

Tuesday was the Summer Solstice, and that night, the shortest night of the year, a great big Texas thunderstorm came rolling through and dumped 2.63 inches of rain on us. It was glorious!

There's one of my rain barrels filling up after being dry for a month. This is going to help with those water restrictions since it doesn't apply to rain barrel water.

My plants were so wilted it took a while for any of them to perk up, but they did end up getting a good. It got really humid after the rain, and the rain lasted long enough to soak in good and deep, so the moisture is lasting a long time in the soil.

It may have come too late for some of my plants. Here are my brown and crispy Bloody Butcher tomatoes getting rained on. Don't know if they'll be able to come back. However, the tomatillos, bell peppers, and watermelons perked right back up after that rain and are still looking good.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Firefly Moon

I have seen a few fireflies lately, but not many. Don't know if it's the drought, or the fact that I haven't gone on enough evening walks lately.

We're still in exceptional drought. Here's the most recent drought map I've been able to find. I'm in that dark maroon part.

This is the worst drought in 40-50 years (depending one what source). I haven't had any rain since that last one I posted about. I've been running the soaker hoses almost every day, and last month's water bill was SHOCKING. I think I might have to just let some of my garden die. Some of it already has, despite my best efforts, but I feel kind of bad about deliberately "cutting off life support" to any of my plant babies. On the other hand, it's becoming very unlikely that some things will yield any sort of decent harvest, so it doesn't make sense to keep spending hundreds of dollars on water to keep them barely alive.

I've already let the Jimmy T okra go. It was still only about a foot high and yielding only a few very tough pods. I have more seeds of that one, so I might give it another chance next year. Not sure who else to let shrivel up and crumble to dust next, but I'm thinking the bush beans.

Now I'm regretting planting all of my bean seeds this year. I figured they needed to be renewed, and never thought I'd get no harvest from any of them. It looks like all my varieties of Phaseolus vulgaris and Phaseolus acutifolius are just going to shrivel up and die if they haven't already. Yes, the even tepary beans have their limits, apparently. I think it only rained on them once in their lives, which is even less than what they'd be getting in their native Sonoran Desert. At least in Sonora they have a rainy season in the spring.

I regret not holding back some of my Calypso and October beans and just planting them all. I had a good harvest of them in 2008, so I saved 100 seeds each of them. I planted all of those seeds this year, and that means I don't have those varieties anymore. The Calypso beans totally died. The October beans seemed at first like they would give me at least a few seeds to replant last year, but this morning I opened up some of their dried pods, only to find shriveled up little beans inside them that didn't get a chance to fully form. Bummer.

The only member of the genus that's still hanging on is Phaseolus lunatus, my Jackson Wonder bush lima beans. I wasn't even that into them; I got them in an online trade without even asking for them. I've never grown lima beans before, but amazingly enough they're still green and even have a couple of pods on them. They're shown on the right of the picture above, behind the shriveled up Dragon Tongue beans in the foreground.

The Vigna species are doing a bit better. I planted Red Noodle Yardlong Beans, Monkey Tail Cowpeas, and Mt. Pima Yori Muni Blackeyed Peas, and they're all still green and alive. No pods yet, but just being green and alive puts them way ahead most of the plants in my garden right now.

The pole beans are mostly still alive, but besides the yardlong beans, they're looking bad and some individuals are starting to die off. So far I have harvested three Cherokee Trail of Tears beans and three Blue Coco beans. Yes, I mean three individual seeds from each. Can't do much with that.

 After the beans, I may have to give up on the sweet potatoes. If I understand the info gained from this very helpful website about sweet potatoes, the plants decide fairly early on in their lives which of their roots will swell up to become fleshy edible potatoes, and which will stay regular roots. If the plants are stressed during this critical period, they will grow fewer potatoes, even if things improve later in the season.

Even though I had a fairly decent harvest last year, this year my poor sweet potatoes have a lot of things going against them. One thing you see here is how many WEEDS got going in their plot. (Well, it's actually grass, but the definition of "weed" I go by is "any plant somewhere I don't want it to be" so in this case the grass is weeds.) I admit I'm not the best at keeping up with weeding, and when we had that one rainstorm last time, the grass in the sweet potato bed just went nuts, and then I got a bit busy with work, and the next thing I know I can hardly see the sweet potato plants under there. I tried pulling out some grass now, but grass is hard to pull out, and I ended up pulling out some of my sweet potato plants along with it (they came out much more easily than the grass!).

Another problem is I was dumb and planted the sweet potatoes in the sand. As I've mentioned before, part of my garden has a big layer of sand over it because there used to be an above ground pool there. The common opinion around here is that our soil sucks because it's clay, and you should add sand to "lighten it up", so I thought the sand was actually a good thing, especially for root crops like sweet potatoes. Well, with the drought I have noticed a BIG difference between the plants in the sandy parts and the clay parts. The plants in the clay are doing much better. I think this busts that myth. Clay holds water and nutrients much better than sand. Clay good. Sand bad.

Put these things together, the weeds and the sand, and add in NO WATER, and the result is puny, pathetic sweet potato plants. At this time last year my sweet potato plants were already vining all over the place.

So do I keep watering them every couple of days as they hang on to life in that quick-drying sand under their choking blanket of weeds, or do I cut off life support and let them go? Is there any hope for me to have any sort of harvest from these now at this point, or am I just wasting water?

Out of the many pepper varieties I planted, I've only got two left. The best ones are the California Wonder peppers I got as excess transplants from my CSA farmer. They aren't putting out any fruit, but they're alive. Again, just being alive is doing really well for a plant in my garden this year.
This is my other pepper plant, one of the Golden Cayennes I planted. It's grown four peppers so far too! None of its sister Golden Cayennes made it, nor the Lemon Drop, Habanero, or Soroksari peppers planted. I wonder if I should save seeds from this one plant, or if saving seed from only one pepper plant will make them too inbred.
I've managed to keep my White Wonder cucumbers alive, which is a little surprising. They've even been tried to put out fruits, but the last ones were eaten by deer since they were sticking through the fence. I think I'll save seed from this cuke if I can manage it. White Wonder is supposed to be more heat tolerant than most cukes. My one Ogen melon died, and almost all my squash is dead now too (the last two don't look long for this world), so a cucurbit that's actually working on fruit is quite impressive.
The Moon and Stars Watermelon (shown above) and the luffa gourds are hanging on to life but haven't yet managed to put out any fruits. Maybe if I can just get them to stay alive long until the next rain, whenever that will be.
The tomatoes actually aren't doing too bad, which surprises me. I'm actually harvesting tomatoes! Not enough to can, but I have been eating them almost every day, and have some extra to stick in the food dehydrator. That's pretty much the only thing I've managed to get to eat from my garden so far this summer. I don't think it will last though. Tomatoes can't set fruit above the mid-90's, or so they say. The heat supposedly kills their pollen. I think what I'm harvesting are fruits that already set before it started being over 100 degrees every fracking day, and once those are gone I won't get any more. But oh man, those Cherokee Purples make the BEST BLT sandwiches! I just had one for lunch today. Mmm.
The tomatillos also go in the "at least they're alive" category. I thought I got a few fruits, but they turned out to be empty husks. And I was hoping to can a bunch of salsa verde this year! I also planted all of my tomatillo seeds, so if these don't make it, I won't get to save any seeds and will have to re-buy.
Perhaps the thing that saddens me the most is the Great Garlic Massacre of 2011. After such a wonderful heirloom garlic harvest last year, I thought for sure I would never have to buy garlic again, either for planting or for eating (except maybe for adding new varieties to my collection). And then we had the big freeze in February that stressed a bunch of them out, followed by the quick onset of heat and no rain. This spring I've just watch my garlic one by one, variety after variety, shrivel up and crumble to dust. Above is one of the few varieties that still show some green, Pskem River, but I pulled one and it doesn't even have a bulb.
The only decent garlic I got was the Elephant garlic, which isn't even a real garlic to begin with, but I don't know if that matters. Normally elephant garlic is about twice as big than regular garlic, hence the name, but these ones are only about as big as a regular head of garlic, if that. But I guess that's better than nothing.

I wish I were a more optimistic or hopeful person, in general. I tend to get really pessimistic about life a lot of the time. I know that's not a good way to be, but it's hard for me to not fall into that mode of thinking. I've spent the last couple of years being unemployed and underemployed, and it's hard for me to see how I'll ever pull myself out of this hole. Now with this drought, it seems like Nature itself is against me too, ruining the garden I've worked so hard on.

But then looking up at me are these little cuties. The fall tomatoes, eggplants, and basil are about ready to go into individual pots. Maybe the rains will come back and the drought will end and I will get a bountiful harvest again. There's just something about a seed that seems to say to me, "There's always next year." I need to listen to them more often.

Update: Oops, I just found out that we've actually been under Stage 2 water restrictions since the beginning of June. That means I should have only been watering once a week. I thought we were still in Stage 1, which limits sprinklers but not soaker hoses. Well, now I know. Under Stage 2, soaker hoses are also limited to once a week.

This actually makes me feel a little less bad. It's like it's out of my hands. The plants only have once a week water rations now, and if they can't make it on that, there's nothing I can do about it even if I wanted to.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Renewing America's Food Traditions

The latest issue of Conservation Magazine's cover article is Closed-Source Crops, about the patenting of genetic material in crop plants. Good article, especially in a magazine that's usually about the conservation of endangered wildlife. It seems to me that usually the issue of the loss of biodiversity in food plants is only talked about with a certain subset of the gardening community who do things like join Seed Saver's Exchange and have mason jars of saved squash seeds in the fridge. You know, like me. (Though, technically I haven't joined SSE yet, but I plan to in the future once I get better practice at seed saving.)

I'm a member of The Society for Conservation Biology, since I got my education in ecology and conservation biology (and would like to someday maybe even get a job in that field, though that's proving to be difficult!), and that's why I get this magazine. Now with this article my hobby and professional life have crossed a bit.

The article is well worth reading. The author spent some time with Native Seeds/SEARCH, another organization I'm a fan of. He mentions Gary Paul Nabhan, who is one of the founders of Native Seeds. I wasn't aware of that, actually. It reminded me that I had been intending to review his book, Renewing America's Food Traditions, on this blog, but haven't gotten around to it yet. I guess now is a good time!

This book was one of those lucky finds at Half Price Books that caught my eye, mainly because at the time I had been reading things from a lot of foodies who seem to claim that America doesn't have any food traditions. They claim our food is all cobbled together from various immigrant cuisines taken out of context and made more unhealthy, and this is why we have an obesity epidemic. People seem to think that McDonald's is the best that America has to offer, food-wise, and to get good food you have to look elsewhere, to China or India or the Mediterranean, where they have proper food cultures.

Well, anyone who holds that opinion really needs to read this book. America does have a food culture, several in fact, but they're endangered. Now, I'm all for trying out foreign foods from China or India (as you can see from some of my other foodie posts on this blog), but it would be a shame if people ignored the food traditions we have right here and let them go extinct. What about Texas Chili? What about Jambalaya? What about New England Clam Chowder? There's a lot more to American food than Big Macs.

Nabhan divides the country into no less than thirteen "Food Nations", and the ecologist in me is tickled by how they correspond to the different ecological zones of the continent. He calls them "ecogastronomic zones". That makes a lot of sense in light of how, until recently, most food had to be obtained locally, and what food could be grown locally depended entirely on what ecosystem you live in. Each of Nabhan's culinary ecosystems even has it's own culinary keystone species that each nation is named after.

For example, the modern state of Texas covers four Food Nations. I live in central Texas, which is the southernmost area of Bison Nation that stretches up the Great Plains from here to the Dakotas. This food nation is named after the bison that used to sustain the Plains Indians before the Europeans almost completely wiped them out. Now Bison Nation is ranch land with cattle replacing the bison.

To the west of the Texas plains is the Trans-Pecos region of Texas, and covering there through the Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts is Chile Pepper Nation. This is the food nation that Native Seeds/SEARCH focuses on. East Texas, with its wetter climate and Piney Woods, lies in Cornbread Nation, that goes from there to Appalachia. Then along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana is Gumbo Nation, named after its characteristic dish of okra and seafood.

Each food nation has a chapter in the book, which highlights several crops, livestock, and even wild plants and game animals that the cuisine of that area once depended upon, but are now endangered. For example, my food nation's chapter talks about the bison, of course, and then Arikara Yellow Beans, Hutterite Soup Beans, Osage Red Flint Corn, Sibley Squash, Silver Fox Rabbits, and Hidatsa Sunflowers.

This book shows how America is a tapestry of different groups of people, through the lens of food. There are Native American foods listed in the chapters, but also foods brought here by European immigrants and African slaves. You can see the different layers of the region's history in its food, with the Plains Indians of Bison Nation influencing later cowboy culture, the Hopi and Navajo of Chile Pepper Nation with later Spanish influence, the strong African-American influences of Gumbo Nation, and Cornbread Nation's Cherokee mixing with the descendants of Scots-Irish immigrants who became known as Hillbillies (though I'm not sure if it's PC to call them that, but I don't know of any other word for that particular culture).

But it's not so much of a hodge-podge to make America have no food culture. Other countries, such as India, are also made up of a diverse mixture of various cultures that all brought their own foods. Why does this need to be a bad thing?

Well, I'm already trying to hunt down some of the vegetable crops listed in this book, at least for the ones from the food nations of Texas (assuming that the foods of neighboring food nations will grow OK here as well). It looks like most of them can be obtained from SSE, Native Seeds, or Sandhill Preservation Center. Besides the ones highlighted in the book, there is an Appendix with a list of even more endangered foods from each nation. My I'itois onions from Chile Pepper Nation are listed on there, and they're growing great in my garden right now despite the terrible heat.

Unfortunately, I don't have the means to raise my own livestock, but reading about heirloom breeds of cows, chickens, goats, pigs, etc. is still really interesting. One of the important reasons for preserving these breeds is that a lot of them do better in a free-ranging environment than modern industrial factory-farmed breeds. Your standard Butterball turkey, for example, has been bred to have such huge breasts that it can hardly walk, let alone run around out in a pasture. The same principle applies to other livestock species. If we want to get away from the cruel and ecologically destructive practice of factory farming, we need to have the right breeds of animals for it.

One thing that gives me pause is the mention of wild game animals, fish and seafood, and wild plants that people used to depend on for food but are now endangered. I hope that doesn't cause confusion, because the way to save domestic plants and animals is actually to eat more of them, therefore making it profitable for farmers to raise them, but with wild plants and animals it is exactly the opposite. There are species in here that should never be eaten again, like sea turtles, and even though Nabhan does say that the wildlife listed in this book should not be hunted again until their populations recover, I hope that going on about how tasty they are doesn't send the wrong message. He does end with a passage about the Passenger Pigeon, which was once the most common bird in North America, but was hunted to extinction. I admit that when I think about the Passenger Pigeon, the first thing that comes to mind is not "too bad I'll never be able to eat one", but I guess that's just another thing to add to the long list of why driving species to extinction is a bad thing.

It reminds me of how right after the BP Oil Spill, Slow Food posted an article encouraging people to eat more Gulf seafood to support the fishermen. I'm not sure if that was such a good idea. What makes people think they can't drive fish and other marine life to extinction the same way they did the pigeons? We say there are plenty of fish in the sea, but it used to seem like there were plenty of birds in the sky, and we turned out to be wrong. Now it looks like we're wrong about the fish too, with many fisheries collapsing.

On a less depressing note, I also like how this book has recipes for these foods. Not only are people forgetting about their traditional foods, but they're also forgetting how to cook them, which was mentioned in passing in the "Close-Source Crops" article. Reminds me of how people complain that grass fed beef is tough, and then I find out they're overcooking it. These foods are often different in taste or texture than the industrial versions we're used to now, and therefore you have to cook them differently to get a good result. Of course, in my opinion, you end up with a better result! I haven't tried any of these recipes yet, but some look tasty and interesting. I might have to do a little bit of substituting for some of these ingredients I haven't tracked down yet.

I agree that in this time of global warming and transitioning away from ecologically unsustainable methods of food production, it's very important to look at some of these older breeds of plants and animals and the genetic diversity they contain. Evolutionary adaptation requires genetic diversity as a pre-condition, after all.