Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Cedar Moon

For the last month or so when I go outside to work in the garden, I've noticed this lovely smell. It's a fresh, clean smell, like Christmas trees or pine shavings. I'd inhale deeply and go "aah" and wonder what it was.

I finally figured it out.

This is the culprit! It's a male Ashe Juniper tree in my next door neighbor's yard. That golden hue is pollen cones. I never realized before that juniper pollen has a smell, but juniper is what the air smells like. That's what it must be. The rest of the tree is very fragrant: the wood, scales, berries, and bark. Makes sense the pollen would be too.

I love Ashe Juniper trees, but I might not feel the same way if I was allergic to them. Ashe Junipers are commonly known as "cedars" around here, even though they're in a completely different genus than true cedars and don't even look much like them (true cedars look much more like pine trees, with needles and cones, instead of scales and berries). Like most conifers, they're very fragrant. I love the smell of a campfire made with some Ashe juniper wood, and the branches make good smudge sticks.

I might also love them because they're such a hated tree, so they seem like underdogs. Besides the notorious allergy, they're also hated for "encroaching" on pastures (similarly to mesquite trees in some areas, another tree I like that a lot of people hate), and even depleting the Edward's Aquifer of water.

Personally, I think it's a bit unfair. Like other "encroaching" woody plants, I don't think it's fair to blame junipers for being able to survive in overgrazed, under-burned, and overall poorly managed pastures when grass cannot. (In other words, they're a symptom of that problem, not a cause.) I was always skeptical of the idea that junipers are especially "thirsty" plants that are sucking up all our water, and now there may be science backing me up on this. And while I feel sorry for people who are suffering from Cedar Fever right now, people are allergic to oaks and elms too. However, those trees just don't seem to draw the same kind of hatred that cedar does (I am allergic to something in the spring. I'm not sure what it is, but I'm afraid it might be oak).

According to my next door neighbor, the owner of this house hated cedar so much that he cut them all down in this yard. That explains why my yard only has oaks and elms and ash, while the yards surrounding us all have mature juniper trees in the mix. Seems pretty silly to chop down all the junipers in this yard when there are plenty right next door. It's not like pollen respects property lines. But maybe the desire for revenge against the evil cedar outweighed any logic in this case.

My pineapple sage is also trying to reproduce. Pineapple sage is supposed to flower in the autumn, not the dead of winter, so I wonder why it's late like this. Maybe it was too stressed from the drought at first, and now that's it's finally started raining a lot, it's making up for lost time. We've also had a fairly mild winter so far, with only a couple of mild freezes. This may also be why the cedar pollen is especially high.

The mild weather also might be making the cabbage worms worse. My cauliflower and collards are getting eaten up very badly. I just sprayed them with Bt again. Normally winter-grown brassicas don't have a big problem with bugs, but we haven't had any hard enough freezes to kill the bugs yet.
The only brassica they aren't bothering are the mustards. Maybe they don't like spicy food. My CSA farmer gave me transplants of something called Horned Mustard to plant in my own garden. He's been giving me it for eating for a while, and it's really good in stir fries. The transplants seem to have taken well.
The Curly Mustard I planted a while ago is also doing fine. It's a lighter color and more frilly than any of the other brassicas. The other plants in this picture are some volunteer elephant garlic (sprouted up from bulbils I missed), some bunching onions, and some wild clover I'm letting grow so it can add nitrogen to the soil.
The garlic is doing well too, but now I'm sad because I might end up moving before it's time to harvest the garlic in May. Daniel suggested that we could transplant it to the new place, but I'm not sure if it will make it through that. I guess that would be better than giving up on it entirely though.
The peas are doing fine, but I haven't harvested any so far. I also might not get any before we move, though peas are less of a big deal to me than garlic.
I don't know why the peas over here are so much lighter in color than the ones along the fence. Something in the soil? Surrounding them are the rutabagas which are just starting to swell up.
The lettuce is doing well too. Here you can see the difference between my first planting and second planting. Hopefully the second one will catch up.
I'm still working on starting my nightshades, but I've gotten a setback. The tomatoes are getting really bad rotting or damping off or something like that. The top of the soil has gotten all green and slimy, and the tomato sprouts just sort of shrivel up. I wonder if I should replant and start microwaving the soil to sterilize it first. I have done that before, but I wasn't sure if it made a big difference, so this year I haven't bothered yet. Maybe it is important after all.

I can keep the nightshades in pots until we move and then plant them at the new place.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Turnips are Underrated

Brassicaceae is a plant family of great culinary importance. It contains a lot of very nutritious vegetables, such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, mustard, collards, kale, radishes, turnips, and rutabagas. However, these vegetables are also the sorts of vegetables moms have to force their kids to eat if they want any dessert. This is probably because of the slightly-to-very bitter and pungent flavor compounds these plants tend to make.

Now, to be fair, the members of this family that joined forces with humans toned down these flavors quite a bit compared to their wild relatives. In the wild, bitter or pungent flavors are there to protect the plant from their herbivorous predators. Domesticated brassicas traded their self-defense capabilities in exchange for letting humans eat some of them, as long as humans grow them and plant their seeds. The problem is they still have a little bit of these defensive compounds left, which means that some humans still react to them in an instinctive way that they're not good to eat.

Humans can learn to like them, though, especially when grown and prepared the right way to tone the defensive compounds down. This is good because, like I said, they are very nutritious. It's also good for a Texas gardener like me, because brassicas are cold-weather plants that I can grow through the winter. They're plants that help Central Texas have a 12 month growing season, because they're actually better when they've been through a few freezes, and our freezes are never hard enough to kill them (and most of them aren't even damaged). They fill an important niche in the garden, growing when it's too cold to grow things like tomatoes and squash, and growing during a time of year when we usually get enough rain so they need only minimal irrigation or none at all. Without brassicas, the garden would just be going to waste during the winter.

I've discovered that turnips are one of the easiest brassicas to grow. I never ate turnips before I tried growing them, and I first grew them mainly because I heard they do well in poor soil and are easy to grow. That sure is true! As soon as the weather starts to cool down and the fall rains come, just sprinkle some turnip seeds. Come back every now and then to thin them so they're eventually about 4-6 inches apart, and in about two months they're ready to harvest.

I grow regular old Purple Top turnips, which is the variety all seed catalogs seem to have (even when they don't have any other kinds of turnips). Maybe one day I'll try some other varieties, but the purple top turnips are the ones most people think of when they think of turnips. Here they are freshly pulled at around tennis ball or baseball size. The greens are also edible. You cook turnip greens in the same way you would cook collard greens, mustard greens, or kale, so you can get two crops in one, but in this case these greens were full of cabbage worms, so they went in the compost pile. I'm more diligent about spraying Bt on brassicas I'm growing just for the greens, but the turnips never got sprayed, so the worms found safe haven there. At least they don't damage the roots.

Here my turnips are all cleaned up. Aren't they pretty? Purple on top and bright white underneath, with bright white flesh. So what do you do with turnips? Their flavor depends on growing conditions, so they're at their best when they're grown in cool weather. In cool weather they make more sweet flavor and less pungent flavor. Raw, they taste and smell like very mild radishes. They aren't nearly as hot as radishes, but there's still a little bit of radish-ness in there. You can eat little baby turnips raw like radishes, but I prefer to let mine get big and then cook them, and eat the radishes like radishes.

Cooked, I think they taste a lot like cooked cauliflower. They're often substituted for potatoes, but they're much less starchy than potatoes. I know that mashed cauliflower is a popular low-carb substitute for mashed potatoes now, so I bet mashed turnips would also fill that role. They're also much easier to grow than cauliflower.
When I have a good crop of turnips, I like to substitute half turnips in potato dishes. I made some of these into a pan of scalloped turnips and potatoes, using half turnips and half Yukon gold potatoes. The rest I used for turnips and potatoes Au gratin. They're also good mashed with potatoes. The turnips make the dish less starchy than if it was made with just potatoes, while the potatoes dilute any bitter flavor the turnips may have.

OK, now you may be asking, "Recipes please!" Keep in mind, these aren't exact recipes. I got my base recipes off and then fiddled with them. But I'll try. Scalloped potatoes are basically sliced potatoes and onions cooked in a white sauce. Au gratin potatoes are similar, but instead of onions, they have garlic, and they're in a cheddar cheese sauce. Either dish is really good for potlucks, dinner parties, or holidays.

Scalloped Turnips and Potatoes
  • About 3 lbs. of a combination of potatoes (a medium starch potato like Yukon Gold works best), turnips, or other root vegetables.
  • 2 or 3 sliced onions
  • 4-5 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 3-4 cups milk
  • salt and pepper to taste
Peel and slice the potatoes and turnips, then boil them until they're only half-done and drain them. This only takes about 5-10 minutes. They'll cook the rest of the way in the oven.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan and add the sliced onions and sweat them in the butter. Sprinkle the flour over the onions and cook until the flour starts to form a light roux. Add milk gradually, then add salt and pepper, and stir and cook until the sauce just starts to thicken (it will thicken the rest of the way in the oven).

In a greased 9x13 pan, or in a 3 quart casserole dish, layer the turnips, potatoes, and sauce so that everything is evenly distributed. Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes, until it turns a little brown on top, and the veggies are completely done (poke a fork in to check). It's best to let it sit and cool a little bit and set up before serving.

Turnips and Potatoes Au Gratin
  • About 3 lbs. of potatoes, turnips, or any other vegetables that taste good with cheese sauce.
  • 4-5 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 4 cups milk
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • salt and pepper to taste (or seasoned salt or Cajun seasoning)
  • 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese
  • breadcrumbs (optional)
Half-cook the vegetables as in scalloped potatoes above.

Melt the butter in a saucepan and add minced garlic. Cook the garlic in the butter a while, then add flour to make a light roux. Gradually add milk while stirring, and then gradually add cheese until it melts and the sauce is smooth and uniform. Add salt and pepper or other seasonings to taste.

Put the vegetables into a greased 9x13 baking dish or casserole dish and pour cheese sauce over. Sprinkle top with Parmesan cheese and optional breadcrumbs. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes until bubbly and cheese is brown on top (I sometimes put it on broil for a little while to get a really nice browned cheesy top, but be careful to keep an eye on it and not let it burn). Let it sit and cool for a little while before serving.

The turnips Au gratin are what really reminded me of cauliflower, because when I was a kid I loved cauliflower and broccoli with cheese sauce. It makes sense because they're in the same family. I bet turnips would go well with other flavors and cooking techniques that work well with other brassicas. Bacon and vinegar, for example. I love collard greens cooked in bacon fat, with a bit of cider vinegar splashed in. Cabbage goes well with members of the Apiaceae family like caraway, dill, and fennel. I think it's because that family tends to have compounds that cancel out the effects of compounds found in brassicas that are bitter and hard to digest. Turnips are also used in Asian cuisines, along with their relatives the Asian mustards and cabbages like bok choy. I know turnip greens are good stir-fried but I haven't tried the roots yet.

Maybe turnips are considered such a low-class food (even compared to other brassicas) because they're just so easy to grow. I still haven't managed to grow cauliflower, but every winter I have plenty of turnips. Nothing wrong with that, though! They're turning out to be pretty useful.

Monday, January 2, 2012

New Year 2012

I'm looking back at my New Year's post for 2011 to see what ended up actually happening compared to what I planned to do. Of course the biggest garden story of 2011 was the drought. Not only that, but one of the worst droughts in Texas history! So a lot of my garden resolutions didn't come to fruition just because of that.

I didn't harvest my garlic earlier, keep on top of the squash vine borers better, or get some fall tomatoes all because all that stuff was ruined by drought anyway. Pretty much the only summer crops I harvested at all were a few tomatoes and peppers.

Another one of my resolutions was to be more careful about watering, but I ended up using more water in 2011 than I did in 2010 because I didn't have the heart to just let my whole garden wither and die, which it would have if I hadn't watered once a week. The really bad thing is that most things died anyway, because once a week watering wasn't enough in the extreme heat and drought, and the things that didn't die didn't yield a good enough harvest to be worth it.

I did manage to save some seed from my Rio Grande paste tomatoes and Ms. Burns Lemon basil, but there was nothing else to save seed from.

Another accomplishment was getting a soil test done, which revealed that my garden is good on all nutrients except nitrogen, which is much better than I expected. However, this may become irrelevant in 2012, for a reason I will get to shortly. For the same reason, I may not have to worry about Bermuda grass or finishing my rock borders in 2012.

One thing that did happen on 2011 that affected my garden in a more indirect way is that I finally got a job. I was unemployed for most of 2010, but in 2011 I got a job as an adjunct biology professor. This may explain why I posted to this blog 61 times in 2010, but only 47 times in 2011. I had a little less time on my hands, though my job is still a part time one. Maybe in 2012 I'll get a second part time job, or get a full time job at last, but then I'll have to learn to keep up with my garden with even less time on my hands. My garden has been very important to my mental health during this time, giving me something to do that feels productive and worthwhile.

2012 Garden Outlook

1. Moving! The big story for 2012 is that I'm probably going to be moving! My fiance (we're getting married in March) has decided that, at least with his salary, we can afford to buy a house. Our mortgage payments would end up being less than what we're paying for rent now, and he can get a VA loan since he's a veteran. So if all goes well, I'll be breaking completely new ground in 2012. That means I'll have to start over with some things, which will take up most of my garden work. I'll have to get a new soil test, and start digging up grass and building up planting beds all over again. It'll give me a lot to blog about though.

2. Will the Drought Continue? I've heard different things about whether we'll have another summer in 2012 like the one in 2011. I hope not, but if so, I'll have to go ahead and let things die if it comes to that. It's a complete waste of water to keep plants alive that aren't going to bear fruit anyway because it's too hot, and by the time it cooled down, what did survive didn't have time to do anything before it froze.

3. Because of these previous two things, I'm going to have to be more conservative about what I plant in 2012. Depending on when exactly we're going to move (which might be as soon as February or March), I probably shouldn't plant anything new in my current garden at all, and just let what I have finish out. Then I won't have much time to get my new garden ready before the summer heat sets in. I'm trying to think of what crops I should concentrate on in my new garden that first year. I already have tomatoes and peppers started, so I'll have to plant those. Besides that, maybe legumes to start building up the soil? It might depend on my soil test.

Of course I've got big dreams for the new place that I haven't been able to do while renting a house, including planting perennials like asparagus and berry bushes and fruit trees, and rigging up some sort of greywater system. I need to not get too excited and get ahead of myself here. We haven't even made an offer on a house yet!